Wisconsin Dells is three and a half hours away, but you can practically hear the screams from here. The Dells is the water park capital of the country, gorged year-round with kids cannonballing through a landscape of plastic attractions. If that sounds more like your idea of purgatory than vacation, read on. Fully 25 percent of Dells visitors leave the kids at home and wouldn’t be caught dead in one of its many theme parks.
For these regional travelers, the area has become an alluring destination for girlfriends’ getaways, man-cations, and couples seeking a romantic retreat. In other words, it’s come full circle. The Dells began its life as a tourist destination simply because of its natural beauty.
Flash back to the Ice Age. That rush of water in the glacier melt that followed carved gorgeous gorges and canyons into the surrounding sandstone. This scenic stretch of the Wisconsin River caught the eye of pioneering landscape photographer H.H. Bennett 150 years ago. His shots of the bluffs attracted the Dells’ first tourists, who rented rowboats to survey the scene.
GORGES, CANYONS, SPAS
Tourists are rediscovering this aspect of the Dells today, only with many more boat options—kayaks, canoes, amphibious duck boats, paddle wheelers. Landlubbers who want to take in the view should stroll on the half-mile paved riverwalk that anchors downtown’s seven-block main street, framing pretty overlooks.
Serious hikers can stretch their legs at three nearby state parks. Or stretch their imaginations while admiring ancient native paintings on the rocks at Kingsley Bend Wayside (Hwy. 16). There are two 100-foot-tall bears and an eagle with a 200-foot wingspan. It’s also fun to explore the bluffs as photographer Bennett may have, via a canyon excursion in a horse-drawn wagon.
Prefer life in the fast lane? Scoot to Raceway Park for a stock car race or hop on a zipline while the rest of us head for the spa.
Sundara Inn & Spa bills itself as “a spa with rooms, not just a hotel with a spa stuck on.” Never mind packing for your visit to this posh, adults-only hideaway in the pines: Guests—moms and daughters, couples, girls’ groups—amble from breakfast to pool to spa to sundeck in comfy robes provided by the spa. And if you’re content relaxing near the fireplace in your suite, there’s no need to break for dinner. Simply summon a meal and a bottle of bubbly from room service. This is not one of your rigorous sprouts-and-tofu diet camps, thank goodness. Breakfast included Nueske’s bacon, cheesy eggs, and chocolate muffins (plus fruit). With a snap of your fingers, have those classy eats delivered to the fire pit anchoring the heated all-season deck of the heated outdoor pool/Jacuzzi.
“Shall we get purified?” I overheard someone say at breakfast. They were not talking about a religious experience or a cleanse diet, but a complimentary five-step hot/cold water bath in the spa, where massages and yoga classes also are offered. If you decide to venture out for dinner, no need to worry about transportation; chauffers are part of the spa experience here.
Wilderness Resort also caters to grownups with private cabanas and hostess services. Prove your moxie on the zipline and then reward yourself with dinner in Field’s, its signature cafe, designed by a disciple of Frank Lloyd Wright. Puritans can work off the calories on a candlelit hike (or, in winter, a cross-country skiing expedition) in nearby Mirror Lake and Devil’s Lake state parks. Those preferring spectator sports can hit downtown’s dueling piano club or comedy scene.
SHOP, GOLF, DINE
Downtown by daylight displays its share of elite shopping interspersed with the plentiful T-shirt and souvenir emporiums dotting the main drag. Alpha Beta Karma gladly fires up your credit card for impulse purchases to warm one’s body (and spirits), ranging from a glam faux-bunny parka to embroidered cowboy boots, a must-have messenger bag in flamingo pink, and quirky warmers fashioned from recycled sweaters.
Its neighbor, Diamonds in the Dells, fulfills the promise of its moniker with plenty of bling, both new and garnered from estates. Pair your purchase with something leather from Thirty Below (that’s the name and the price), featuring wallets, purses, gloves, and more.
Swiss Maid wickedly tempts passersby with homemade fudge and fancy hand-dipped chocolates. Search for less-fleeting treasures in the antiques malls and vintage clothing shops, or brand-new keepsakes crafted by the scores of regional artists represented at Artistic Expressions. Or go for the gold and browse the museum-quality photographs for sale from the studio of Mr. Bennett, who started this whole tourist thing.
Market Square Cheese offers samples aplenty of its countless varieties; pick up your favorites to accompany a bottle of wine from Fawn Creek Winery, situated on a nearby country road and open year-round for tours and free tastings. Those who just can’t wait may carry a bottle to the deck to sip while scanning the surrounding forest, accompanied by the winery’s upscale snacks, such as an olive mix or tasty quesadillas. Unashamed shopaholics can continue their quest at Tanger Outlets, a collection of more than 70 brand-name stores offering uber discounts, including Banana Republic, Coach, Tommy Hilfiger, Polo, and Ralph Lauren.
Some couples have made a truce: He hits the massage table while she golfs (or is it the other way around?). For a one-stop op to please both parties, Chula Vista Resort offers both a championship course and spa. Two more championship courses—Wild Rock Golf Club at the Wilderness and Trappers Turn Golf Club—can make or break your game.
Makes you hungry, doesn’t it? From its second-story perch above main street, High Rock Café welcomes weary shoppers with its freshly minted creations that honor seasonal and regional products in new approaches, including monthly salutes to a key ingredient, such as pumpkin and cranberries in autumn or blueberries in spring. In any season, the chef’s Rasta Pasta flirts with heat stroke—or go for the best-selling Soprano sandwich. Return for a look at the late-night tapas menu, too.
The Cheese Factory Restaurant is an innocent name for a culinary whirl around the globe, vegetarian-style, with dishes ranging from Indian chickpea stew and spicy Thai lo mein to Mexican burritos and pizzas galore. This is clearly a café where the admonition to leave room for dessert applies, as a glance at the lineup of homemade layer cakes will testify. A counter does double duty as an espresso bar and soda fountain.
Diners into nostalgia—or just plain good eating—hail Wisconsin as the supper club capital of the nation, and the Dells just might be home to the best of the best, starting with Del-Bar. Built in 1938 by a protégé of Frank Lloyd Wright, it features a cache of cozy fireplaces warming linen-clad tables, well spaced to foster conversation and abetted by a wine cellar with nearly 3,000 bottles. The longtime family-run venue’s claim to fame is its hospitable service, in close competition with legendary, well-aged steaks. Plus, there’s none of this new-fangled à la carte routine. The owners wouldn’t hear of it. Every entrée comes complete with a salad, bread, and potatoes—all made from scratch. So is the strawberry schaum torte, mercifully generous enough for at least two forks.
See that groovy martini glass beckoning in neon down the road? That’s the icon of House of Embers, another classic supper club. This one’s a newcomer (think 1959), now run by Mike Obois, son of the founders. His sister, Linda, who’s waited tables here for, oh, 40 years, will guide you through the wine list or one of those 21 famed martinis to complement the house specialties: hand-breaded shrimp with homemade cocktail sauce, killer ribs, and classics such as Austrian veal with creamy mushroom sauce. This is another of those “save room for” destinations, where you’ll regret it if you bypass the chocolate-toffee-caramel layer cake with sea salt. Or the ice cream lemon meringue pie with pecan crust. Or . . . oh, stop!
No trip to Wisconsin is complete without beer. Port Huron Brewing Company (a mile east of town on Hwy. 23) offers samplers of its handcrafted specialties as well as growlers for sale in its Engine House tap room (named after the family’s vintage steam tractor), open Friday and Saturday afternoons (with free popcorn and pretzels, too).
Water park? Who needs a water park?
Carla Waldemar is a Twin Cities freelance writer.