When it comes to travel, it costs a lot less to make kids happy than parents think.
Oh, kids are happy to let adults spend money on big-ticket trips Disney World, Six Flags, the Wisconsin Dells.
But what do they prefer? It's elemental, my dear parents: rocks, water and sand.
It's no secret there's buried treasure right here in Minnesota.
It's in every gravel pit, along every railroad track, on every beach. All you have to do is look to find a Lake Superior agate, Minnesota's official state gemstone.
And every July, agates also can be found spread over Moose Lake's main street 400 pounds of them, some even polished, hidden along with 2,000 quarters in 4 tons of rock.
In summer, there's no better vacation than a week at the lake. Lazy afternoons on the beach, boat rides, marshmallow roasts, catching a string of sunnies these are memories families savor for decades.
But if you don't have a family cabin, where do you go?
Wisconsin has more than 15,000 lakes, about the same number as Minnesota, plus shoreline on two Great Lakes.
To children, the breakwall of Grand Marais harbor is one big amusement park.
I watched in fascination as a barefoot 3-year-old in diapers zoomed from one jagged outcropping to another, scrambling up a chest-high cleft in the rock to follow her 6-year-old sister along a lichen-covered ridge.
They climb anything and everything, their mother said, smiling.
Not many parents would think that a long road trip would be a perfect vacation to take with young children.
But the shores of Lake Michigan is one big sandbox, and on a drive along its shores, you'll hit one big playground after another.
On the east side, Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore is spectacular, a Disneyland of sand. But the lake also is lined with lighthouses, fudge shops, fur-trade forts and endless beaches.
If it wasn't for the climate, Peter Pan would feel right at home in Madison, Wis.
It's the NeverNeverland of the Midwest, a town whose zany exuberance is appreciated by everyone but Republicans, whose outnumbered governor once called it "57 square miles surrounded by reality.''
Inhabited largely by college students whose political zealotry is matched only by their zeal for a party, downtown Madison is a place where it's easy to get in touch with your inner child.
By the time children turn 10, the day already is looming when they no longer want to spend time with you, their loving parent.
Jeremy Southworth of La Crosse, Wis., saw that day coming. So when his son Gavin got older, he took him jet-boating in the Dells and zip-lining in Door County.
"He'd been wanting to try zip-lining, so as soon as we came up here, we decided, 'We're doing that,' '' he said.
The man with the big, Dentyne smile and Marlboro voice slammed his fist into his palm.
"Okay, here's the game plan,'' he bellowed. "No. 1! You WILL see Lambeau Field. You WILL see the press box. You WILL see the executive skyboxes. You WILL sit in the club seats and see a video.
"So where are you all from? How many of you are not Packer fans? Ma'am, you have my condolences. The rest of this group, we know the Packers are the best team in the NFL this year.
As soon as we turned off the highway into Nisswa, my childrens heads began to swivel.
"Souvenirs . . . Gift Shop . . . Moccasins, read my daughter Madeleine. "And look Candy Store.
"This is a cute town, said my son Peter, noticing the covered sidewalks. "Its like a cowboy town.
Sleep with sharks. Howl with wolves. Get chummy with a mummy . . . in the dark.
At top museums, that results in sweet dreams, not nightmares.
After everyone else goes home, many museums, aquariums, nature centers and even a submarine turn over their galleries to children and their adults.
It's morning in the Little Town on the Prairie, and we're thumbing through the guest book at the Prairie House Manor B&B.
"I can't believe we are in the 'Little Town' where Laura grew up,'' one woman wrote. "This is truly a dream come true,'' wrote another.
So many little girls, so many dreams. When Laura Ingalls Wilder wrote her nine books about growing up on the American frontier of the 1870s and 1880s, she had no idea her idealized portrait of pioneer life would be such powerful medicine to so many.
It's amazing how many things are free around here.
We pay nothing to watch fireworks and water-ski shows, use trails and parks, visit zoos and museums and go to hundreds of outdoor festivals, art fairs and concerts.
Our children fill baskets at free Easter egg hunts and rake in armfuls of candy at summer and fall parades.
In the circus, nothing succeeds like excess. And no one succeeded at that more than the Ringling brothers.
In the last half of the 19th century, Americans clamored to be amazed. Tent shows traversed the countryside; Wisconsin alone had more than 100.
On the Mississippi, showboats brought entertainment to river towns. In 1869, two circuses — one was Dan Rice's Own Circus, whose proprietor's clown character was the inspiration for Uncle Sam — put on performances in the Iowa river town of McGregor.
It's ironic, considering its past, that St. Paul is such a wholesome destination.
Liquor brought the first white resident to Minnesota's capital; he was Pierre Parrant, a swinish, one-eyed former voyageur named Pig's Eye. He set up his first tavern near Fort Snelling, but was rousted in 1837 by officers who were tired of the trouble it caused.
The hovel he built in a cave down river was St. Paul's first building, and the area around the tavern he built later, in the future downtown, was known briefly as Pig's Eye.
First, we loved the water slides, geysers and whimsical fiberglass figures at the Polynesians Water Factory.
Then, we loved the bigger slides, chutes, lily-pad walk and tubing river at Great Wolfs Spirit Mountain.
When the Wilderness opened Klondike Kavern, its second park, we loved its indoor-outdoor hot tub and long tube slides.
There's one spot along the North Shore at which everyone has to stop.
Its five falls tumble over lumpy floes of ancient lava, filling the air with mist and tumult.
Intriguing crannies, created by jagged walls of rock and twisted cedars, turn adults into compulsive shutterbugs and bring out the Indiana Jones in children, who clamber from one precipice to another.
To a city kid on vacation, amusement parks are nice but nothing is more appealing than a friendly wet nose.
Mewling barn kittens, curious cows, a trusty mutt for a weekend one May, they were part of the family when my children and nieces and I stayed in the guest house of a Wisconsin dairy farm.
Awesome, my son Peter said after a Holstein nuzzled his hand. Im going to be a farmer when I grow up, after Im in the NBA.
It's a big rush, zipping over treetops.
You can ride over an Ontario canyon, dunes in Door County,
a gorge near the Dells and a creek in Michigan.
Zip lines first made an appearance at environmental learning centers, alongside
climbing towers and high-ropes courses.
From late July through August, die-hard football fans can get a head start on the season.
If you're wondering how the Vikings, Packers or Bears will do this year, you can get a preview by watching the players gear up for the season at training camps.
Make a day of it, because all of the camps offer festivities, games of skill, fan giveaways and autograph sessions for kids. Admission is free.
After many years of traveling around this region, I can answer nearly every travel question except one: Can you give me the name of a good lake resort?
I wish I could, but no. Only you know what you consider a good lake resort.
Staying at a north-woods lake resort is not like staying at a Marriott. There may be chipmunks living under your cabin, and fish that nibble your legs when you wade. Squealing children may run past your window while youre trying to read.
Up north, there's a lake cabin with my name on it.
I don't own it, and I never will. But for a week in August, it's mine.
Only a generation ago, most middle-class folks in this area could think of nothing better than renting a little housekeeping cabin on a lake.
Over the years, my children logged many crossings of the St. Croix River.
Like all who are young at heart, we love traveling in Wisconsin. Not only is it beautiful, but it also tends to produce people who remember how much fun it was to be a kid.
Take Laura Ingalls Wilder and Caddie Woodlawn, whose adventures were recounted in famous children's books.
Long before settlers plodded into the Upper Midwest, its rivers and forests were swarming with a more footloose kind of entrepreneur.
The Pilgrims still were getting a toehold on the eastern seaboard when Frenchman Jean Nicolet passed through the Straits of Mackinac in 1634 on his way to Green Bay, returning to Montreal with news of a vast interior filled with fur-bearing animals.
Traders wasted no time going after the pelts, and international commerce already was brisk by the time people in Salem, Mass., were whipping themselves into a frenzy over imagined witchcraft.
It's the 21st century, but children still want to spend a day in Laura's world on the frontier or Huck's world on the Mississippi, or Davy's in the woods.
Laura and Huck didn't have iPods or Xboxes, but they had adventure. In their worlds, people had to live by their wits, unaided by technology, and make what they needed with their own hands.
It's so romantic and we're not talking Bella and Edward. If only these kids could go back in time to see what it was like . . . and as it turns out, they can.
In the wilds of northeast Wisconsin, winter always looks like winter.
It's the kind with snow snow that comes early, stays late and blankets the forest in heaps, supplying reliable skiing and snowshoeing to people from less-blessed locales.
But one year, the heaps of snow didn't come there or virtually anywhere, and skiers were desperate. So was Pete Moline, who runs Afterglow Lake Resort near the Michigan border.
On the I-94 corridor between Chicago and Milwaukee, tourists get to go trick or treating all year-round.
In Pleasant Prairie near Kenosha, they get packets of jelly beans. In Chicago, they're handed chocolate and cheesecake. In Milwaukee, it's beer.
Everyone loves free samples, and factory tours are a fun way to spend an hour or two. But watch out: They usually end in an outlet shop, where you'll be sorely tempted to spend real money.
In fall, we all love to get out and see the colors on a good tramp through the woods.
But why not let a horse do the walking?
I dont ride much, but when I do, its always autumn. Crisp air and colorful forests call for a trail ride, and the view is always better on a horse.
One Great Lake east of Superior, theres another North Shore.
It doesnt have any craggy points or sheer palisades, and there are no agates waiting to be found. It has no waterfalls, and not a scrap of basalt; in fact, theres nothing volcanic about it.
But this north shore, on the leeward side of Lake Michigan, has something Minnesota's beautiful North Shore on Lake Superior doesnt have: Sand, lots and lots of sand.
For parents, it's hard to predict what kids will like best about Chicago.
During spring break one year, my friend Rebecca and I took our children to Chicago, with an itinerary that alternated visits to museums with visits to zoos and parks.
Pitting high culture against popular culture, we knew what the biggest hits would be: the Ferris wheel at Navy Pier, Lincoln Park Zoo, the elevated train, deep-dish pizza, perhaps the Museum of Science and Industry.
Laura Ingalls Wilder, who once said, "At the time, I had no idea I was writing history,'' would be very surprised to find that the eight books she wrote about the Midwestern frontier of the 1870s and 1880s have become the basis of a well-beaten tourist path.
To a log cabin in Wisconsin they come, and to Laura's farmhouse in Missouri. They track down a depression above the banks of a Minnesota creek, and a shanty on the Kansas prairie.
These starry-eyed fans are the Deadheads of the preteen set, traveling with their equally avid mothers and sometimes grandmothers, who pass on a love for the "Little House'' books like a cherished heirloom.
In Duluth, you can lead a child to water but just try leading her away.
Mom, itd be worth moving to Duluth just so we could go to this beach a lot, said my daughter Madeleine, jumping from rock to rock at Brighton Beach.
Duluth, once the ugly duckling of Lake Superior, now is one of the best places in Minnesota to take children. On Canal Park, the lineup of tourist attractions can keep a family entertained for days.
My niece loves a large Rottweiler named Rza, so her travel opportunities are limited.
But one October, I rented a lake house near Cable, Wis., that allowed dogs, and both of them came. And we all had a great time: When Rza's happy, everyone's happy.
"This is probably the best weekend of her life,'' said my niece, after wed spent the day romping on the lawn and in the nearby forest.
If imitation is the sincerest form of flattery, the Wisconsin Dells must be very, very flattered.
Indoor water parks are everywhere now. Since many people don't have money or time for a spring-break trip to Florida or Mexico, they're very popular.
Water-park hotels are busiest in spring, when people are tired of cold weather, and room rates reflect that. Look for specials on-line and travel midweek if you can; weekday rates stay low until late March, when school breaks start.
Theres one city in the Midwest that never will get too big for its lederhosen.
Milwaukee, sometimes called the biggest small town in America, doesnt brag though it should. It has a swell baseball stadium, a beloved art museum and a beautiful lakefront.
Lake Michigan borders downtown, lined with beaches, bike trails and playing fields. Craft breweries and restaurants reflect a culture steeped in Gemütlichkeit, the German term for congeniality and good life.
More than a decade before Laura Ingalls played on the banks of Plum Creek, and 70 years before the fictional Kit Kittredge solved mysteries in Ohio, a girl named Caroline "Caddie'' Woodhouse roamed the Wisconsin wilderness.
To many readers, Caddie was the first and best American Girl.
She came of age during the Civil War and loved the outdoors, gathering hazelnuts in the woods, dodging rattlesnakes on the bluff and poling a log raft on the lake.
In June, racing season moves into full throttle in resort towns around Minnesota.
Speeding turtles begin their weekly sprints in Nisswa and Longville. In Perham, the "International'' Turtle Races the town says they've attracted competitors and spectators from Africa, Europe, Asia and the Middle East begin the week after Memorial Day.
Pelican Rapids holds weekly minnow races.
Planning a vacation with a dog can be frustrating. And yet, pets have gone up in the world.
More resorts are setting aside cabins for families with pets, perhaps inspired by Martha, the talking dog in the popular children's book series, and her pointed reproach: "We're your best friends or have you forgotten?''
Some towns have started festivals just for dogs (and their owners).
Mansfield, Mo., has never been a particularly prosperous town. Lying in the heart of the Ozarks, its landscape is bucolic but barely fertile.
In 1894, however, a stream of people seeking better lives was flowing through this Gem City of the Ozarks, and among them was 27-year-old Laura Ingalls Wilder, who had traveled in a horse-drawn hack from De Smet, S.D., with her husband, Almanzo, and their daughter, Rose.
As a child, Laura had zigzagged across the Midwest with her family, dogged by failure. Her life with Almanzo seemed similarly destined: Two years after they married, their barn barned.
When I was a child, I had a wild imagination. Anything would fire it up, especially tales of exploration: in dank, twisting caves; along rushing creeks shadowed by stone bluffs; on sun-kissed hilltops, with the world stretching out all around.
And I loved the tales told by two real-life childrens-book heroines: the resourceful tomboy Caddie Woodlawn, who roamed the wilderness of western Wisconsin during the Civil War, and Laura Ingalls Wilder, who relished life in the Big Woods above Lake Pepin before they became farmland.
Western Wisconsin, it seems, has fired many young imaginations. One September, I took my own two children there, on a 185-mile tour with six spots that appeal particularly to kids.
It was a beautiful fall weekend in Lanesboro, and the streets of this picturesque town in Minnesotas bluff country were packed with sightseers and bicycle tourists.
They were browsing in gift shops. They were sampling at the winery. They were bicycling on the Root River State Trail.
In fall, Lanesboro is the darling of day-trippers and weekenders. My children and I love it, too. They spent 15 minutes with me in the arts center, I spent 15 minutes with them in the Indian crafts shop, and then we went in-line skating on the paved trail, across the trestle bridge and along the limestone bluffs.
One winter, I went to summer camp.
It was the German-language immersion village in Bemidji, Minn., to which my daughter went for eight years. She always returned starry-eyed and eager to go back: "I wish I could go there year-round,'' she'd say, sighing.
Id always wondered what kind of pixie dust the Concordia Language Villages counselors sprinkled on children. Then Concordia started offering family weekends in winter, and I got to find out.