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South Wisconsin

15 great places for kids in Wisconsin

From farm to city to beach, the state is one big playground for children.

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.

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Baraboo's gilt complex

In Wisconsin's Ringlingville, the golden age of the circus never ended.

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.

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Shopping in Madison

In this colorful college town, materialism and muckraking co-exist.

In Madison, a visitor is exposed to many messages: Resist corporate globalization. Fight for social justice. Housing is a RIGHT!

But when I was there one November, no one said anything against materialism.

Madison — sometimes called the People’s Republic of Madison — is so anti-establishment and anti-corporate that a Starbuck’s caused an uproar when it opened on State Street.

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Summer in Madison

In warm months, head for the brewpubs, bicycle trails and lakes of this exuberant college town.

In summer, it's hard to know what to do first in beer- and bicycle-loving Madison.

Bike along Lake Monona, or on the Capital City State Trail? Have a beer and listen to blues on the lakeside terrace of the Memorial Union, or in the Bier Garten of Capital Brewery?

In summer, this college town is in its element. Its Great Taste of the Midwest in August is the largest beer festival in Wisconsin and the second-longest running craft-beer festival in North America.

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Sights of Sheboygan

Surfers, sculptors and sausage makers all follow their passion in this Wisconsin town.

As far as most people know, there’s nothing but sausage in Sheboygan.

This town on Lake Michigan is the bull’s-eye of brats, for sure, and serious eaters go straight for a double on Sheboygan hard roll.

But serious sightseers come to Sheboygan for other reasons: for surfing, for odd sculptures, for sand dunes.

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Bicycling in Wisconsin

The state that pioneered rail trails isn't resting on its laurels.

When people think of bicycling in Wisconsin, the famous Elroy-Sparta State Trail often is first to pop into their minds. But the state has added many, many trails since the Elroy-Sparta debuted in 1967, and it's time to try them.

All of the trails listed below use finely crushed limestone, except as noted. They're suitable for touring bikes, though a wider tire is better. Chip-sealed trails are like asphalt but softer, and can be nearly as smooth because they don't become pitted.

State trail passes are $5 daily, $25 annual; passes also are good in winter on ski trails. Rates on county and city trails vary; many are free, including the Interurban and Oak Leaf.

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Milwaukee at Christmas

During the holidays, this city shimmers like Cinderella.

No one ever accused Milwaukee of being flashy.

Best known for tractors, motorcycles and beer, it’s a meat-and-potatoes kind of town, stolid and practical like the Germans who built it.

It’s not what you’d call a trendy destination. And yet every time I go there, I have a great time.

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Cheap summer getaways in Wisconsin

No money, no problem: Here are 20 great vacations that are easy on the wallet.

In summer, it’s not as hard as you’d think to take a trip that's a lot of fun but doesn't cost much.

Many of the great travel experiences in Wisconsin can’t be bought, anyway — bicycling along Lake Michigan, camping on sandbars, volunteering in a lighthouse.

If you like music and festivals, you're really in luck — Wisconsin has many fun, family-friendly fests with on-site camping, at unbeatable prices. And its national forests and county parks are full of great campsites.

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Old World Christmas at the Osthoff

On the shores of Elkhart Lake, a luxury resort imports a slice of Germany.

No one knows how to celebrate Christmas like the Germans.

It's thanks to them that Americans decorate Christmas trees, hang wreaths and put nutcrackers on mantels. Because of them, we bake gingerbread men, open Advent calendars and fill stockings with treats.

Still, not every German Christmas tradition has crossed the Atlantic.

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Party in Milwaukee

Summer is one long festival in this unsung city on Lake Michigan.

Once, I thought of Milwaukee as the ugly duckling of Midwest cities, a colorless runt with the grit of Chicago but none of its allure.

Silly me.

It’s true that downtown Milwaukee, during the day, is not exactly flashy.

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Destination: Stockholm

Once the promised land, a Lake Pepin village now is a favorite day trip.

Once, people went through hell to get to Stockholm, Wis.

It's different nowadays. It's only a joy ride away from the Twin Cities, and the streets of this pretty hamlet on Lake Pepin are lined with sports cars and motorcycles on weekends.

There are shops, galleries, inns, a pub; it's the place to go for a room with a view or vroom with a brew.

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Road trip: Wisconsin's Muir Tour

The sandy soil on the Wisconsin River is a springboard for naturalists, past and present.

In its marshes and woods, John Muir first discovered the joys of wilderness. On its sandy plains, Aldo Leopold became a pioneer of land stewardship. On its meadows, two young ornithologists created a haven for cranes.

The natural world found some of its greatest allies on a swath of rolling, glaciated land in south-central Wisconsin. Muir went on to found the Sierra Club and is known as a father of America’s national parks. 

Leopold inspired legions with such books as “A Sand County Almanac.’’ George Archibald and Ron Sauey founded the International Crane Foundation.

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Road trip: Wisconsin River

The valleys and bluffs around Prairie du Sac draw paddlers, hikers and Sunday drivers.

At Prairie du Sac, the Wisconsin River finally breaks free.

Lined with so many dams and reservoirs it's often called the nation's hardest-working river, the Wisconsin devotes itself to play after it passes the town.

Then it becomes the Lower Wisconsin State Riverway, beloved by canoeists, who like to play on its many sandbars.

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Valleys of Vernon County

In the nooks of Wisconsin's coulee country, people of all kinds found a niche.

In 1862, a poor Norwegian couple and their four small children, including their infant son Thorvald, joined a wave of immigrants to Wisconsin, eventually settling in the coulees of Vernon County.

Vernon County was an interesting place in the 1860s. Only a generation before, Black Hawk and his band had fled through it, hounded by militia.

They ran headlong into a slaughter that remains one of the most shameful chapters in U.S. history. Today, 11 plaques mark the route, which ended near the town of Victory.

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A jumpin' joint

A Norwegian village in southwest Wisconsin has a longtime love affair with ski jumping.

In Westby, Norwegians take their love of tradition to extreme heights.

The high ridges and deep coulees south of La Crosse drew so many Norwegian immigrants in the 19th century that the area around Westby became known as "America's little Gudbrandsdal,'' after the valley in Norway.

The Norwegians had left their homes, but not their customs. Today, Norwegian flags fly from lampposts, and the visitors center is a stabbur, a top-heavy wood building used in Norway since the Middle Ages.

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Gawking in Lake Geneva

On a mansion-lined footpath, walking is a spectator sport.

There are thousands of lakes in the north woods, but the most famous one is a stone's throw from Illinois.

Lake Geneva has been the favorite retreat of Chicago folks for 150 years, and everybody who was anybody had a place there: the Wrigleys, Maytags and Schwinns, but also cartoonists, actors, brewers and bottle-cap makers.

Geneva will seem citified to people who vacation on woodland lakes. There's a good reason to go there, though: It's entertaining to gawk at extreme wealth, and there's no better place to do it than Lake Geneva.

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Prairie du Chien's past

A riverside estate provides a window into Victorian high society.

He was young and dashing, the son of Wisconsin's first millionaire, an Indian trader who became a country gentleman.

She was a beautiful debutante, daughter of a Fort Snelling general who was Custer's commander in South Dakota.

The pair loved art, horses and books; after they met in St. Paul and married, they honeymooned in Europe, where they commissioned an artist to cast their handsome faces in bronze.

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Fountain City oddities

A Wisconsin village on the Mississippi River is the capital of the offbeat and unexpected.

It's easy to speed right through the river town of Fountain City, on the way to someplace else, but that would be a mistake.

In Fountain City, all is not as it seems. A Hindu temple sits amid hay fields. One of the world's largest collections of toy pedal cars occupies five barns on a bluff. Dreamlike Santas ride fish in a riverfront studio, models for copies sold around the nation.

On this seemingly ordinary stretch of the Mississippi, people have been inspired by . . . something. Perhaps it's the dramatic bluffs that loom above town.

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Cruising La Crosse

These days, the riverfront is an even bigger draw than the bars.

We'd been in La Crosse for barely an hour, and everyone we'd met was a certified character.

In Riverside Park, Frank and Faith Rimmert and Jonathan and Barb Rimmert were decked out in top hats, waistcoats and crinolines to meet the Mississippi Queen paddlewheeler, portraying the 19th-century locals who would have assembled.

"If your relatives were coming for a visit, you'd come to greet them," said Faith Rimmert, a volunteer for the La Crosse County Historical Society. "People picked up things being shipped in, or maybe you'd be looking for a servant — you'd say, 'I want that person for a servant in my house.'"

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A slice of cheese country

On Wisconsin's Badger Trail, bicyclists bite off as much as they can chew.

On Wisconsin's Badger State Trail, no one goes home hungry.

Starting from the south edge of Madison, the 40-mile trail plunges into Little Switzerland, taking bicyclists past a gantlet of cheese shops, meat markets, bakeries and breweries.

But the Badger is best known for its 1,200-foot-long tunnel, cut through solid limestone in 1887. It curves in the middle, so bicyclists without a good flashlight will find themselves in total darkness, their nerves shot by pigeons bursting out of hidden crannies.

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Road trip: Southwest Wisconsin

A 170-mile loop winds past lead mines, a famous grotto and a brewery town.

Scratch the surface in southwest Wisconsin, and you'll find treasure.

In the 1820s, it took the form of lead ore that early miners, to their amazement, found at the grassroots. Lead and zinc made this area bustle when Milwaukee and Madison were just getting started, and one of its villages served as the territory's first capital.

Today, visitors to this corner of the state — just across the Illinois border and up  the Mississippi bluffs — find a lode of history in a beautiful landscape.

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Heritage travel: Switzerland

In Wisconsin's cheese country, townspeople hang on to tradition.

In the Upper Midwest, the Swiss are insignificant — in numbers. Not many left the Old World. But the ones who did have had more success transplanting their traditions than nearly any other immigrant group.

In the southwest Wisconsin town of New Glarus, Germanic platitudes unfurl in Gothic script on the plaster of half-timbered chalets, over window boxes overflowing with geraniums. A little baker hangs over the doorway of the Bäckerei, where glass cases display almond-flavored brätzeli and anise springerle cookies.

The sign over the town fire department reads "Feuerwehrhaus," and Railroad Street is Bahnhofstrasse.

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Slinging cement in Mineral Point

In a historic Wisconsin village, students follow some dusty footprints.

In southwest Wisconsin, it is natural that people gather in Mineral Point to smash plates, snip glass and cover themselves in cement dust.

Not far to the west, a German-born priest built the Dickeyville Grotto from conch shells, china cups, quartz, petrified rocks and glass.

Just to the east, an Austrian-born cheesemaker encrusted his house with glass "jewels'' and filled his yard with concrete fairy-tale figures.

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Drawn to Spring Green

Creative urges converge in Frank Lloyd Wright's hometown.

There's a story behind everything in Spring Green.

Frank Lloyd Wright's story begins in the 1860s, when his unconventional grandparents and their 10 children emigrated from Wales to settle this dramatic valley of the Wisconsin River, which came to be known as "the valley of the God-almighty Joneses.''

The story of Alex Jordan's House on the Rock, atop a limestone spire that overlooks the valley and Wright's beloved home, is rooted in spite. After his father traveled from Madison to show Wright blueprints for a rooming house, and was harshly snubbed, Jordan vowed to get even and "put a Japanese house up out there.''

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Beauty in Mineral Point

In southwest Wisconsin, artists and shoppers alike are drawn to a lovely village.

Since its earliest days, the people of Mineral Point have created beauty out of nothing.

Lead first drew eager frontiersmen, who often lived in the "badger holes'' they dug in their search for "mineral.''

The territory later became known as the badger state, and the town became Mineral Point, the nucleus around which Wisconsin developed.

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Swiss at heart

In Wisconsinís Little Switzerland, New Glarus hangs onto a colorful heritage.

In a verdant little glen in southwest Wisconsin, the 13th century makes a reprise appearance every year.

It comes with pageantry, bloodshed and a whole lot of noble sentiments, courtesy of the 18th-century dramatist Friedrich Schiller. It also comes in German that’s as meaty as the Landjaeger sausages sold to spectators.

As I arrived during the first act of "Wilhelm Tell,’’ a rich Swiss patriot was discussing the horrors of war with his wife.

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Wisconsin's cheese country

In Monroe, the Swiss stay true to the flavors of their forebears.

In the land of Velveeta, Wonder bread and Miller Lite, a chunk of southern Wisconsin is an Old World holdout.

Home of North America’s last Limburger factory, Green County is the big cheese in a state of cheese makers.

It’s still famous for the pungent Limburger and Swiss on which it made its reputation. It’s weathered the advent of processed cheese food and gummy white bread. It’s survived the tide of bland beer and low-fat diets.

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High drama at Devil's Lake

Rocks tell the earthshaking story of how the Baraboo Hills were created.

We’re at the end of the Ice Age, at the edge of an endless mound of blue ice whose vast, super-cold surface has sent 200-mph winds whipping into Wisconsin.

The winds can strip the flesh off a face in 30 seconds, so the local mammoth hunters have gone south for the winter.

Now the hunters are back, standing at the edge of a milky-white, 70-mile-long lake made by melting ice.

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H.H. Bennett's Wisconsin Dells

Thanks to a 19th-century photographer, tourists flooded in to see the famous rock formations for themselves.

H.H. Bennett wanted tourists to come to the Wisconsin Dells, and thanks to him, they came.

Boy, did they come.

In Bennett’s day, they stayed for weeks, playing croquet and checkers and going on picnics, boat excursions on the Wisconsin River and perhaps to a magic-lantern show of stereoscope slides from Bennett’s studio.

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The divine Devil's Lake

In Wisconsin's Baraboo Hills, a stunning state park makes people come running.

In Wisconsin, a bunch of rocks sets hearts aflutter.

They enchant geologists, of course, but also scuba divers, rock climbers and botanists. The rest of us, too — hikers, birders, campers, Boy Scouts.

We all go to give Devil's Lake its due.

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Wisconsin Dells in fall

For many, the scenery is best when the crowds are gone.

In the Dells, when the children go home, the adults come out to play.

Autumn is a quiet time in Wisconsin Dells. The outdoor water parks are closed, many attractions are shuttered and the water-ski show performers are in Florida for the winter.

In the rush of summer, many tourists spend a whole week in Wisconsin Dells and never see the dells that drew tourists in the first place.

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The quiet side of the Dells

Sidestep the Strip, and you'll see an area little changed since a photographer made the world come running.

See the FUDGE sign in blinking white lights. See the plane tail protruding from the faux-ruin façade of Ripley’s Believe It or Not. See the Wax World of the Stars, the Dungeon of Horrors, the Trojan Horse . . .

Yes, it’s Wisconsin Dells. But it’s not the only Wisconsin Dells.

Tourists always have been part of the scenery in this picturesque part of Wisconsin. The first settler was a printer and publisher, and one of the first residents was a young carpenter who crippled his right hand in the Civil War and became a photographer.

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A chocolate tour of Madison

For people who want the best in bonbons, this town is a decadent destination.

No one knows why Madison is the fine-chocolate capital of the Upper Midwest.

We do know that Europe played a big role. Gail Ambrosius, who grew up in Wisconsin's hamburger capital, tasted her first artisanal chocolate on a high-school field trip to Paris. “And I understood — eating this is the best thing you can do,'' she writes.

Markus Candinas studied chocolate-making in his parents' hometown of Thun, at the foot of the Swiss Alps. Ton Stam came from the Netherlands to join the Madison Scouts drum and bugle corps, then started Chocolaterie Stam.

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Trails of Trempealeau

There's a lot to do in this Mississippi River hamlet in southwest Wisconsin.

All kinds of paths cross in the Wisconsin village of Trempealeau.

Canoes and cormorants, tugboats and trains, bicyclists and blues fans all are drawn toward this Mississippi River town. It’s just a little burg, but it’s smack in the middle of Mother Nature’s playground.

Perrot State Park starts at the end of Trempealeau’s First Street, with hiking trails that give vistors spectacular views of far-off Winona, the river valley and a hill French explorers called La Montagne Qui Trempe a l'Eau, or "the mountain that soaks in the water.''

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Life on Horicon Marsh

At an avian rest stop, humans learn about life on the wing.

On a spring morning in east-central Wisconsin, two geese suddenly shattered the stillness, honking urgently. Yellow warblers zoomed down from trees and out of sight. Redwing blackbirds clung to cattails, swaying in the stiffening wind.

It was only 6:30 a.m., but it was rush hour on the Horicon Marsh.

A human here feels oddly out of place, a lumbering interloper on a fast-moving avian freeway. Birds own this marsh, and they aren't shy about saying so, rending the air with trills and tweets as they go about their business.

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Two trails from Two Rivers

On Lake Michigan, bicyclists ride the breezes between a lighthouse and a submarine.

In summer, overheated tourists head for the Cool City.

Two Rivers, Wis., gets its nickname from cooling breezes that come from three sides: the East Twin River, the West Twin River and Lake Michigan.

Swimmers can cool off with a dip from Neshotah Beach, a great strip of sand, but there’s an even better one five miles north, where Rawley Point Lighthouse towers over the dunes of Point Beach.

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Jolly Cedarburg

In southeastern Wisconsin, a historic village has perfected the art of the party.

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.

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Outdoors in the Kickapoo Valley

In Wisconsin's coulee country, a green zone is known for morels, apples, wildflowers and a winding river.

In the coulees of southwest Wisconsin, a lush green zone draws anyone who craves a heady dose of nature.

It starts in spring, when trilliums bloom along Rustic Roads, morel mushrooms pop out on hillsides and water rushes down the crooked Kickapoo River.

It's not close to any city, but people find their way. Norwegians were first to be drawn to its deep, narrow valleys, like miniature fjords.

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Chasing the Kickapoo

In southwest Wisconsin, a looping river plays peekaboo.

In southwest Wisconsin, following the Kickapoo River is a lot like watching a magic act: No matter how closely you pay attention, eventually what you see is going to disappear into thin air.

When it reappears, it will be in a completely different spot, and you'll have no idea how it got there.

"Look, there it is again," said my husband, as we drove Wisconsin 131 through the Kickapoo Valley. "It's meandering like mad."

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A spin on the Kinni

From friendly River Falls in western Wisconsin, take a wild ride on water.

On Wisconsin's Kinnickinnic River, paddling is a lot like playing pinball — except your boat is the ball.

Quickened by springs and creeks as it flows toward the St. Croix, the Kinni is no lazy river.

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Madison for all ages

Famous for collegians, Wisconsin's capital also fascinates children.

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.

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Blasts from the past

Every September, the Civil War comes to an old stagecoach inn in Wisconsin.

The forest was quiet and the afternoon still. Unnaturally still.

Fifteen Union Army infantry units were camped around wagons in a meadow, near artillery and cavalry. Along a split-rail fence, a drum-and-fife corps pounded drums and blew trumpets.

Gunners began to load their muskets. The cavalry got on pawing horses. Then a Union skirmish line marched down the meadow, followed by a tight column of infantrymen.

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Syttende Mai in Stoughton

In May, everyone turns Norwegian in this southern Wisconsin town.

In the small Wisconsin town of Stoughton, red, white and blue flags fly everywhere on Independence Day.

Except here, the patriotic holiday is celebrated in May, and the flag is Norwegian, not American.

Norway had been under Denmark's heel for more than 400 years when it signed a new democratic constitution on May 17, 1814, a day that became known as Syttende Mai.

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Snowshoeing in Wisconsin

National forests, state parks and wildlife preserves roll out the white carpet for winter hikers.

On the week before Christmas, I figured I’d found the prettiest place in the world.

Fresh snow had fallen around Hayward, and the forest was sparkling. We made our way down the intimate lanes of the Makwa Trail on snowshoes, brushing past heavily laden balsam boughs as we scaled gentle ridges and descended into snowy glades.

Each new tableau was more beautiful than the last, and I congratulated myself on the discovery that single-track mountain-biking trails are great for snowshoeing.

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Near escapes in Wisconsin

Water parks or waterfalls? Here are 10 places to go for a great winter getaway.

When winter seems to be lasting forever, you just want to get away.

Of course, that’s not so easy to do if you’re buried in snow. Then you may have to get away a lot closer . . . maybe to the hotel around the corner.

Until then, here are some great winter getaways, each with lots to do and see.

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In search of Christmas past

At Old World Wisconsin, pioneers party like itís 1899.

Once, every child in America celebrated Christmas without battery-operated toys.

Instead, they played flap jacks and dominos. They made paper ornaments for the tree. They got an orange brought all the way from Florida.

That’s still what kids do during Christmas time at Old World Wisconsin, where it’s always the 19th century. Danish, Norwegian, German, Polish, Finnish and Yankee families toil there, trying to get ahead on the American frontier.

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Wings over the Mississippi

Tundra-swan watchers have a honkin' good time during the November migration.

In the sloughs of the Upper Mississippi, birds of a feather flock together.

Bird-watchers, especially. On chilly days in late fall, they crowd onto wooden platforms to watch tundra swans paddling around sloughs of the Mississippi River.

This big bird needs a lot of fuel for its flight from the Arctic Circle to the marshes of Chesapeake Bay.

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A vintage vineyard

More than 175 years after its founding by a Hungarian hustler, Wollersheim is basking in success.

In the wooded bluffs across the Wisconsin River from Prairie du Sac, the Saturday before Thanksgiving is a red-letter day for wine drinkers.

That's when Wollersheim Winery releases its Ruby Nouveau and throws open its doors for a tasting party that always draws hordes of loyal fans.

The wine is good — better than good, according to judges at international competitions. But visitors also come for the atmospheric setting, on a hillside wrapped by massive oaks and frequented by bald eagles, and for the vineyard's colorful history.

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Road trip: Wisconsin's concrete art

Love goofy roadside attractions? Here's where to find them, from Snow White to Sacagawea.

In the early days of highway travel, some very ordinary folks toiled to enliven Wisconsin's roadsides.

Concrete dinosaurs appeared, and a muskie pulled by horses. King Neptune held court next to Snow White and her dwarves.

There was an ocean liner encrusted with glass, a  Hindu temple and mythic figures from the American frontier — Sacagawea, Paul Bunyan, Kit Carson.

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10 great day trips around Milwaukee

Ride trolleys, see lighthouses, spot birds and hike past mansions.

Milwaukee doesn’t toot its own horn much, so you’ve got to explore it yourself to see how much fun it can be.

Right in town, you can spend an entire day touring breweries or riding on the Oak Leaf Trail, a 100-mile chain of paved paths, parkways and connecting streets.

But the city also is surrounded by old Yankee mill towns and German settlements.

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Cornish in Mineral Point

A fall festival honors the miners who left their mark on Mineral Point.

The Cornish have been good to Mineral Point.

In the 1830s, skilled tin miners from Cornwall, England, came to southwest Wisconsin, replacing the rough frontiersmen whose "badger'' digs gave the state a nickname but the town an unsavory atmosphere.

"They'd start fights just for entertainment,'' said Lisa Kreul, a tour guide at the historic site Pendarvis. "Not until the Cornish came in 1837 did the town start to settle down.''

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Bikes, birds and bogs

Between Trempealeau and Onalaska, cyclists encounter a happy mix of wildlife and civilization.

The pelicans and cormorants of the Trempealeau National Wildlife Refuge are used to train whistles and the distant popping of trap guns. But they're even more used to the whir of bicycle gears.

Each fall, birds and bicyclists migrate to the same place along the Mississippi River in Wisconsin.

Here, the 24-mile Great River State Trail starts in the refuge, skirts Perrot State Park and goes through the river town of Trempealeau before entering the Upper Mississippi River Wildlife and Fish Refuge and then the prairie outside Onalaska.

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Thrills and hills in Elkhart Lake

At the northern tip of Wisconsin's kettle moraine, an old resort town still draws a crowd.

In its entire 150-year history as a resort town, Elkhart Lake rarely has been a sedate place.

The early resort owners loved entertainment and built opera houses, dance halls and theaters. Then they put in casinos, and gambling became so commonplace that placing a bet was like buying an ice-cream cone; everybody did it.

The town was a little bit Catskills, a little bit Vegas and a lot of Chicago.

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10 great day trips from Madison

See the circus, visit Swiss towns or ride a rail trail: There's fun in every direction.

Madison has the state Capitol, the largest university, two big lakes and all kinds of attitude. There's plenty to do if you want to stay put. But sometimes, you just have to hit the road and explore.

Madison is surrounded by great candidates for a day trip — or a mini-vacation, if you prefer. It’s got cheese country to the south, Old World towns to the west, bicycle trails on three sides and good eating all around.

Here are some great ways to spend a day in south-central Wisconsin. If you get out the door early, do lots of stuff and stay late, it really will feel like a vacation.

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Wright in Racine

In southeast Wisconsin, a wax magnate's decision to hire 'the greatest architect in the world' had stunning results.

Wherever he worked, Frank Lloyd Wright was good for a story.

In Racine, Wis., the staff of global manufacturer SC Johnson has plenty of them to tell.

In 1936, the grandson of the company's founder hired the flamboyant architect to design an Administration Building. "Don't make it too unconventional,'' H.F. Johnson Jr. told Wright.

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Power shopping in southwest Wisconsin

On a late-fall foray, six bargain hunters find treasure amid scenery.

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.''

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Wine walks on the Wisconsin

On a fall girlfriend getaway, we hike, eat and sip our way along the river valley.

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 can’t grow they truck in from other states, adding a Wisconsin je ne sais quoi  to the grapes during blending, fermentation and aging.

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Wisconsin's Rustic Roads

On quiet lanes, motorists ramble into the heart of the countryside.

In Wisconsin, people build whole trips around the roads less traveled.

Their destination? Nowhere. And on one of the state's lovely Rustic Roads, nowhere usually is enough.

Across the state, brown-and-yellow signs point to lightly traveled roads that preserve remnants of the past — piebald llamas (Rustic Road 92, south of River Falls), an 1870 lighthouse (Rustic Road 38 in Door County), Amish farms (Rustic Road 56, south of Ontario).

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Road trip: Breweries of southern Wisconsin

A beer-lover's tour taps into Old World flavors.

Fat Squirrel. Spotted Cow. Lazy Mutt. Uff-da.

Uff-da? In Wisconsin, say that and you get a great glass of beer. Anywhere else you get . . . a funny look.

Wisconsin may be full of cheeseheads. It may be a party state. But boy, are they drinking a lot of good beer there.

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Baraboo River glide 'n' ride

In central Wisconsin, paddle down a scenic river and return on the 400 Trail.

In Wisconsin's Driftless Area, the 400 Trail and Baraboo River go together like ice cream and cones.

One is good. Both is better.

They follow each other for 22 miles, the trail only a few feet above the river and its sloughs. Snapping turtles think the trail is a beach, depositing their eggs into its crushed limestone, and fishermen walk the trail to get to secret fishing holes.

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Mad about brew

In the town that worships beer, brewery tours draw legions of fans.

For people who love beer, there’s no better place to drink it than in a brewery.

In 1880s, beer-loving Milwaukee had more than 80 of them. Three became national giants, giving Milwaukee the nicknames Beer Town and Suds City, but only one survived.

That’s Miller, acquired first by Philip Morris, then South African Brewing, and now merged with Coors. Schlitz closed in 1981, and Pabst in 1997.

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Welcome, darlings, to Ten Chimneys

When it was play time, the first couple of the theater headed for Wisconsin.

In a bucolic corner of southeast Wisconsin, a famous acting couple created a retreat unlike any other.

Throughout the first half of the 20th century, Milwaukee-born Alfred Lunt and his English wife, Lynn Fontanne, dominated the Broadway and London stage, where they were known as "the Fabulous Lunts.''

They had so much star power they took only roles that allowed them to work together — and to spend summers at their beloved country house near the village of Genesee Depot.

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Bicycling along Lake Michigan

Miles of trails in Milwaukee and on Ozaukee County's Interurban Trail provide non-stop scenery.

We all know Milwaukee for its beer, bratwurst and oompah bands.

But not many people know it’s also a great place for bicycling.

Sure, there’s a constant stream of bicyclists on the lakefront stretch of the Oak Leaf Trail. From Lake Michigan, bicyclists can veer off onto a secluded stretch of the Milwaukee River or head toward Miller Park on the Hank Aaron Trail.

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Riding the Glacial Drumlin

Mementos of a distant past line a bicycle trail through Lake Mills.

In the middle of southern Wisconsin farmland, there’s a mystery that rivals those of the Mayans and Anasazi.

Riding along the 52-mile Glacial Drumlin State Trail east of Lake Mills, I stopped on a bridge over the placid Crawfish River to read a plaque, "Glacial Time in Perspective.’’

It noted the retreat of the glaciers 143 lifetimes ago and then directed me 1½ miles northward, to where, "17 lifetimes ago, an ancient civilization flourished.’’

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Kohler's luxuries

In a tidy Wisconsin town, a family's reach stretches far beyond plumbing fixtures.

It all began with an enameled horse trough/hog scalder.

It grew into an empire that includes a five-diamond resort, a collection of upscale shops, an innovative art center, a foundation that rescues Wisconsin folk art and, in fact, an entire town that's so perfect it's almost eerie.

That horse trough evolved, too, into such products as the Body Spa, a futuristic shower stall with a waterfall and 10 jets that pummel tired muscles with 80 gallons of water per minute.

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Foodies in Madison

From street carts to fine-dining shrines, Wisconsin's capital city worships food.

Everyone knows what people in Wisconsin like: beer, cheese and bratwurst.

But they also like foie gras, frisée salad and seared pork belly. Southern Wisconsin is a fertile quilt of artisan farms, and their lovingly grown produce goes straight to the Dane County Farmers' Market and the restaurants of Madison.

I've made a lot of delicious memories in Madison: the celeriac soup at L'Etoile, the raspberry truffles of Candinas, the Hopalicious pale ale from Ale Asylum.

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Cycling in coulee country

The famous Elroy-Sparta is just one of the trails in a picturesque pocket of Wisconsin.

There's a beautiful pocket of Wisconsin that dairy farmers would have had all to themselves if it hadn't been for a few renegade bicyclists.

In 1967, Wisconsin made a bicycling trail out of an abandoned rail bed that it had devoted to hikers until it saw that most of the users were on bicycles. That trail, the Elroy-Sparta, sparked a national race to convert unused rail beds into trails.

Today, Wisconsin has more than 2,000 miles of rail trails. Of those miles, more than a hundred skirt the edge of coulee country around La Crosse, a dramatic region of high ridges and valleys untouched by glaciers.

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The first American Girl

Before Laura, before Kit, there was Caddie Woodlawn on the Wisconsin frontier.

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.

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Red Cedar ride 'n' glide

Along a popular trail in western Wisconsin, a hardy tourist can take in the sights by water and by land.

There are certain bicycle trails that inspire loyalty in those who ride them.

For many, it’s the trail that’s closest to home. For others, it’s the trail that runs by a really fine restaurant. And for some, it’s the route with the most wildlife.

One of my favorite trails, the 14½-mile Red Cedar State Trail out of Menomonie, WIs., has all of these things and more. It’s one of the least crowded trails, because the crushed-limestone surface keeps some people away.

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Greatest hits of the Ice Age

In Wisconsin, the best walking trails are gifts from the glaciers.

If you’ve ever walked in Wisconsin, chances are you’ve walked on the edge of a glacier.

The ice is gone, but not the rubble it pushed across the landscape, or the rock its melting waters carved. As the last glacier retreated, it left a path that geologists can follow as easily as yellow lines on a highway.

That path now is the 1,100-mile Ice Age National Scenic Trail, with 620 miles marked, usually by yellow rectangles tacked to trees. It’s easy to follow in the forest, but many of the most spectacular spots are right along highways.

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Grazing in southwest Wisconsin

Where the Badger state began, Old World flavors remain.

In a state where people flaunt foam cheese wedges on their heads, you don't expect the cuisine to be timid.

The cheese, brats and beer for which Wisconsin is known are as robust as the Cheeseheads themselves, who invented the hamburger and the sundae but are best known for Old World flavors.

One of the best places to find them is in the southwest corner, where the state began.

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The trouble with slogans

Skewered by criticism, Wisconsin finds it isn't easy to pick a winner.

In 2009, outraged Wisconsinites attacked the state's expensive new slogan like rabid bulldogs, but they overlooked one thing: There have been worse. Much, much worse.

The fun began that March, right after then-Gov. Jim Doyle unveiled the theme "Live Like You Mean It,'' to be used with the state's year-old brand platform, "Originality Rules.''

A Milwaukee radio host immediately pointed out that the original new slogan has been used to sell Bacardi rum, energy bars, diet books and motivational programs.

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Wisconsin's birthday town

In laid-back Spring Green, any day is worth celebrating.

People converge on Spring Green, Wis., for many good reasons: To admire Frank Lloyd Wright masterpieces. To hear Shakespeare at American Players Theatre. To see world-class kitsch at House on the Rock.

But what brought me to Spring Green? Free stuff.

Spring Green calls itself "The Birthday Town,'' because people celebrating birthdays can go around to its businesses collecting free loot, like trick-or-treaters. It's like having another holiday, except you're the only one who gets to celebrate it.

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In Caddie and Laura's back yard

In western Wisconsin, a loop tour explores the homeland of two real-life heroines.

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 children’s-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.

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Magnificent obsessions

In the Wisconsin countryside, self-taught visionaries left caches of concrete art.

In Wisconsin, nonconformity is cast in concrete.

In the middle of the last century, a motley collection of ordinary folk — a dairy farmer, a car dealer, a tavern owner, a factory worker — took a sharp turn away from the ordinary.

Out of the blue, they began to fashion fairy-tale characters, castles, temples and historical figures out of concrete, adorning them with bits of glass, crockery, porcelain and seashells and toiling until their yards overflowed with figures.

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