The Midwest is known for its front-porch folksiness and down-to-earth pleasures. But take a world-view of the region, and you find that some of its attractions are as exotic and unique as anything on Earth. This, for instance, is the land of Serpent Mound, Jesse James' hideout cave and Sears Tower. Just try finding those anywhere else. And because we live here, we can savor these treasures easily and often.
We asked travel writers Robert Cross (R.C.), Toni Stroud (T.S.) and Alan Solomon (A.S.) where they'd go on a two- or three-day weekend in each of eight Midwestern states. Here are their backyard picks:
Even if your own neighborhood is within commuting distance, Chicago still has plenty of exotic enclaves worth exploration. The city displays its perennial tourist favorites, of course: Michigan Avenue, museums, etc. That's the beginner's tour. Branch out and take a look at Pilsen for a touch of Mexico. Venture into artsy Bucktown/Wicker Park. Or try Little Italy and Chinatown. Both offer glimpses of old cultures and food that's out of this world. --R.C.
Pack a fishing pole, some hiking shoes and a hearty appetite to head for what was once Black Hawk country. Near Oregon, on a bluff above the Rock River, visit the 50-foot-tall American Indian statue--most people think it's Chief Black Hawk--in Lowden State Park. At White Pines Forest State Park, also near Oregon, sleep in a log cabin and rise for the Paul Bunyan Breakfast at the park's restaurant. Work it off on the 13 miles of cliff-top and canyon trails at Starved Rock State Park, near Utica. --T.S.
Don't know if it's the beauty of the place or the revelation that it's here at all. It's safe to say Shawnee National Forest and its wonders--Garden of the Gods and Giant City, to name two--are mysteries to most of Chicago, but here they are, at the Foot of Illinois, waiting to be discovered by you. These are big rock formations, the kind that don't belong in the flatlands, amid deep forests whose insides feel forever untrampled. And--surprise--they're right down the road. --A.S.
Quite a nifty metropolis they have going down there in mid-state. Indianapolis has more big-league credentials than most capitals, starting with NFL and NBA teams. Its downtown comes complete with a large park, a first-class art museum and a children's museum so big it has a wing just for dinosaurs. Eiteljorg Museum of American Indians sheds light on indigenous cultures. And Indianapolis Motor Speedway has a museum too. Any way you look at it, the word for Nap Town is varroomm.
There's more to South Bend than Notre Dame, but that's the place to start. Its statue-topped dome is covered in 23-karat gold leaf. Then, test your sports prowess in interactive exhibits at the College Football Hall of Fame or trace the history of American transportation--including a Conestoga wagon--at the Studebaker National Museum. Sit down to heartland cuisine at the historic Studebaker mansion, now Tippecanoe Place restaurant. Dessert? Tour South Bend Chocolate Factory.
Railroads and highways sank the riverboat traffic, and the floods did the rest, all but finishing most of the small Indiana Ohio River towns. The plus-side for us is today, below the bluffs, we have a string of time-capsule villages, most struggling but all fascinating in their way, each--if you ask--with a story to tell. Special among them, a survivor: Madison. The entire town center is a National Historic Landmark District, and it should be. Come see . . .
People heading west often pause for a spell in Galena, where Illinois rolls toward the Mississippi. A good stop for antiques and charm, Galena is, but just about 15 miles west and across the bridge, there's another don't-miss town, Dubuque. It has the fine National Mississippi River Museum and Aquarium and other riverfront attractions. A short steep-incline railway takes people to the blufftops. And still more views can be had from overlooks in Eagle Point Park. You might even see Galena.
Just north of Marquette, just across the Mississippi River from Prairie du Chien, Wis., Eastern Woodland Indians began building low earthen mounds about 2,500 years ago. About 200 of these ceremonial constructions are preserved in Effigy Mounds National Historical Park. To see them, climb a trail to the cliff tops 350 feet above the river. There among the aspens, boxelders and sumacs are mounds in geometric forms and others shaped like bears and birds.
The book, then the movie, made the Bridges of Madison County famous beyond Iowa, and that's mostly good. There are covered bridges in other places, of course--Vermont is one big covered bridge--but in this uncutesy part of the Midwest, the romance and sweetness of the old structures seem most pure. Only five of the original 19 are left (a sixth, Cedar Bridge, burned in 2002). And if cuddly stuff isn't your thing, John Wayne's birthplace, in Winterset, is open for tours.
Get to Traverse City and leave it immediately, because this is not a city kind of weekend. The goal is farther north: picturesque Leelanau Peninsula. The town of Leland does a pretty good imitation of a fishing village, despite the gift shops. Other towns are a bit quieter and the loop road that links them weaves past farms, vineyards, wineries and an Indian reservation. A few fine restaurants are sprinkled along Grand Traverse Bay. Slightly south, the Sleeping Bear Dunes still doze.
Whoever has the biggest boat wins in Grand Haven, where it's all about the waterfront: the people-watching, the multi-colored musical fountain, the boardwalk and the 1839 lighthouses--two on the same pier. Head inland to Grand Rapids for the Frederik Meijer Gardens, nice place for a light lunch, and on to the covered bridges in the hinterland east of town. Finish your West Michigan triangle at Battle Creek's Cereal City for a Kellogg's factory tour that's Tony the Tiger grrrrreat.
If you accept that Lower Michigan looks like a mitten, then it's the Michigan thumb--from Bay City to Port Huron--that sticks into Lake Huron and sticks in my mind as a nice place to be. The other side has better beaches-- hey, it is terrific over there--but towns like Port Sanilac feel less like upscale-casual resorts than like neighborhood taverns with boat docks. Add lighthouses and good fishing, and we have a mood here that makes you want to linger one more day . . . and another . . .
Remember childhood? Fishing on a lake, musty old cot-tages, boat trips, inner tubes, combination grocery stores and bait shops, fireflies and big mosquitoes? In and around Voyageurs National Park, people can't help thinking about long-ago summers. French-Canadian voyageurs hauled pelts through the boundary waters to make a living and feed the public's hunger for modish furs. But that was three centuries past. Maybe life for the voyageurs was no picnic then, but for Voyageurs National Park lovers, it is now.
I haven't been to Minnesota, but I can dream. On my way to Bloomington's Mall of America--it has a Ferris wheel, bowling alley, walk-through aquarium and Chapel of Love--I'd make a few detours in southeastern Minnesota: at La Crescent, to drive the Apple Blossom Scenic Byway; at Winona, to see its Tiffany stained glass windows; and at Rochester, to take the Mayo Clinic's 1 1/2-hour facility tour and its separate artwork tour. Then again, maybe the mall calls for its very own weekend.
What makes the Brainerd Lakes area so fine is it has everything we want from Minnesota in one convenient package: lakes, fish, loons, trees that smell good, friendliness, mosquitoes in season--plus just enough civilization to make it comfortable and keep you from getting bored out of your skull. Lots of golf. Big casino over at Mille Lacs. Resorts, some of them nicer than we deserve. And if you need a little solitude by a lake--there are 500. One can be yours alone.
Let's leave the Cardinals out of this. St. Louis has its virtues too. The Gateway Arch, of course. And the adjoining Jefferson National Expansion Memorial reminds everybody that this is where Lewis and Clark started their tour of appraisal. Union Station with its stores, hotel and restaurants keeps the downtown lively. Forest Park offers a terrific zoo, and art, history and science museums. Ethnic neighborhoods still thrive. As local tourism officials say, "There's more than meets the Arch."
If you pull yourself away from the theaters that run Broadway-caliber shows morning, noon and night--no reason you should, but if you do--you'll have time for: a lakeside interlude, a spending spree through cute boutiques, a bargain-priced buffet anywhere in town or a visit to a theme park that hasn't lost its theme. No, you're not in Las Vegas, you're in Branson. Which is kind of like Vegas, except the biggest temptation you'll face is whether to take dulcimer lessons.
There are something like 5,600 recorded caves here, most of interest mainly to bats and albino fish. But 20 Missouri holes in the ground--many of them along old Route 66--have been designated "show caves." Meramec Caverns is a hoot: Jesse James' Hideout meets Lassie. Onondaga Cave is merely spectacular. People do get married in Bridal Cave, and, up in Hannibal, Tom Sawyer got lost in Mark Twain Cave. There are more--and something to remember in Muggy Mizzou: Caves are cool.
Cleveland is just up the road, and Akron is just down the road, but in between, the National Park Service has carved out a bit of pastoral beauty that follows a 19-mile stretch of the Ohio & Erie Canal towpath. The Cuyahoga Valley National Park is laced with bike paths and trails, while kayakers enjoy a selection of lakes and streams. A few historic buildings and canal locks preserve the old-time atmosphere, and a restored demonstration village and vintage Hale Farm evoke the pioneer past.
Iowa doesn't have the only earthen mounds. In fact, many such sites that have survived or been restored are in southeastern Ohio. For example: Serpent Mound, the 1,348-foot-long granddaddy of mysterious earthworks, rests on a cliff above Ohio Brush Creek, outside Locust Grove. Northeast of Cincinnati, the hilltops at Ft. Ancient State Memorial bristle with stockade-style mounds. And the 65-foot-high Miamisburg Mound, a conical construction, sits in the Dayton 'burbs.
Theme parks are typically overpriced and overhyped and overloaded with filler. Then there's Cedar Point. They don't give anything away here either: A summer day's fun for a family of four, assuming two short kids, can set Pop back $183.96 plus parking, food and fridge magnets. But the place has 16 roller coasters, including three of the planet's absolute best (Millennium Force is awesome) and others providing ample tingles. It's madness. It's worth it.
Two wildly different exercises in architectural excess can be found in Spring Green. Taliesin, open for tours, is Frank Lloyd Wright's idea of a country homestead--beautiful, low-slung buildings with great views of hills and pastures. Nearby House on the Rock is a sprawling complex with collections of everything from exotic toys to antique cars, mechanical orchestras to model ships. Both are monuments to obsession and eclecticism.
Beer made Milwaukee famous, but a party atmosphere keeps the place going. There's CajunFest, Scottish Fest, PrideFest, Polish Fest and mega-popular Summerfest. There's Juneteenth Day, Bastille Days and the Garfield Ave. Blues, Gospel & Arts Festival. Other big to-dos celebrate Italian, Russian, Irish, Mexican, African and Arab cultures--all in a city that offers an Old World feel, a pretty lakefront park, Harley-Davidson factory tours, a hip new art museum and a Chicagoan's best reason to ride Amtrak.
The American Club, in Kohler, is inseparable from the porcelain empire that spawned this luxury-class resort: No visit is complete without checking out the parent company's urinal collection. But it's the golf course collection that's the draw here--four beauts, topped by Whistling Straits, home of this year's PGA Championship. If you can manage to get a tee time (be flexible), it'll be closest you'll get to British Open-style links golf without a passport. The rooms? Some are a little tight, but the plumbing works.
--A.S.Copyright © 2015, CT Now