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Madison

For a small city, Madison has a lot of flair. Credit the presence of 41,000 university students, or perhaps the city's designation as Wisconsin's state capitol, or maybe its location between two scenic lakes. Whatever the reason, Madison boasts inexpensive entertainment, city parks, and streets enlivened by bookstores, cafes, and funky boutiques. Madison's most bustling thoroughfare, State Street, and the downtown area, Capitol Square, are great places to shop and dine. And late April through early November, Capitol Square hosts the vibrant, open-air Dane County Farmer's Market (www.dcfm.org) on Saturday and Wednesday, with local produce and cheese, arts and crafts booths, musicians, and more than a few speakers on soapboxes.

Visitor Information -- For more information, contact the Greater Madison Convention and Visitors Bureau, 615 E. Washington Ave. (tel. 800/373-6376 or 608/255-2537; www.visitmadison.com).

What to See & Do -- Madison's 100-year-old State Capitol (tel. 608/266-0382) dominates the city center, topped by Daniel Chester French's gilded bronze statue Wisconsin. Hour-long tours are offered daily here and at Monona Terrace, 2 blocks away, 1 John Nolen Dr. (tel. 608/261-4000; www.mononaterrace.com). Monona Terrace community and convention center was designed by Frank Lloyd Wright, whose presence is richly felt in Madison and nearby Taliesin . Tours examine building highlights and Wright's design philosophy. Enjoy superb lake and city views from the building's rooftop garden, a popular stop for lunchtime picnickers.

For more examples of Wright's Prairie School architecture, visit First Unitarian Society, 900 University Bay Dr. (tel. 608/233-9774), which is open to the public, or drive past these private residences: Airplane House (1908), 120 Ely Place; Dr. Arnold Jackson House (1957), 3515 W. Beltline Hwy.; Lamp House (1899), 22 N. Butler St.; J. C. Pew House (1939), 3650 Lake Mendota Dr.; Louis Sullivan Bradley's House, 106 N. Prospect; and "Jackobs I" House (1937), 441 Toepfer Ave.

Madison enjoys more than its fair share of public green spaces, settled as it is on an isthmus between lakes Mendota and Monona. Of the city's more than 150 public parks, one of the most popular is the free Henry Vilas Park Zoo, 702 S. Randall Ave. (tel. 608/266-4733; www.vilaszoo.org), where locals gather to picnic, feed ducks, and view more than 600 animals. Olbrich Botanical Gardens, 3330 Atwood Ave. (tel. 608/246-4550; www.olbrich.org), boasts 14 acres of outdoor flowering plants and a conservatory. Olbrich Park, across the street, sits on the northeastern shore of Lake Monona, with picnic tables and a swimming beach.

Where to Stay & Dine -- Head to the Arbor House, 3402 Monroe St. (tel. 608/238-2981; www.arbor-house.com), for a luxurious stay in a green inn, with organic cotton sheets, biodegradable cleaning supplies, and native landscaping. Doubles start at $110 and include organic, homemade breakfast and the free use of mountain bikes. The Hilton Madison Monona Terrace, 9 E. Wilson St. (tel. 608/255-5100; www.hiltonmadison.com), is ideally located in central Madison, within a few blocks of the capitol and the university, and adjacent to Lake Monona and the Monona Terrace Convention Center. Doubles begin at $189. The Edgewater, 666 Wisconsin Ave. (tel. 800/922-5512 or 608/256-9071; www.theedgewater.com), on Lake Mendota, boasts beautiful lakeside sunsets and a fine restaurant. Doubles begin at $129.

For a casual meal out, you can't beat the atmosphere and food at Great Dane Pub & Brewing Co., 123 E. Doty St. (tel. 608/284-0000; www.greatdanepub.com), serving up a dozen craft beers alongside sandwiches, burgers, and dinners. Updated Wisconsin comfort food comprises the menu at the Old Fashioned, 23 N. Pinckney St. (tel. 608/310-4545; www.theoldfashioned.com); expect mac-n-cheese, walleye, and burgers in an upscale tavern. Visit the 19th-century stone house that is Quivey's Grove, 6261 Nesbitt Rd. (tel. 608/273-4900; www.quiveysgrove.com), for steaks, chicken, vegetables, and pies like Grandma used to make.

The Wisconsin Dells

The Wisconsin Dells draw thousands of tourists every year, claiming the title "The Waterpark Capital of the World." But it was the region's natural beauty that first drew visitors to its 15 miles of weathered sandstone cliffs and cool, wooded gullies. Ironically, few visitors to this popular attraction ever see the Dells themselves.

You can observe the region's natural beauty from April to October on Dells Boat Tours (tel. 608/254-8555; www.dellsboats.com) or aboard World War II amphibious "ducks" at Original Wisconsin Ducks (tel. 608/254-8751; www.wisconsinducktours.com). Both offer 2-hour tours of the sandstone gorges for $21 adults, $11 children (age 5 and under free). During the warm months, you can also explore the gorgeous landscape on horseback with a guide at the Beaver Springs Fishing Park, Riding Stables and Aquarium, 600 Trout Rd. (tel. 608/254-2707; www.beaverspringsfun.com). An hour's ride costs $25 adults, $8.50 children 5 and under sharing a horse with an adult. Fifty-foot cliffs form the lakeshore of Mirror Lake State Park, Fern Dell Road (tel. 608/254-2333; www.mirrorlakewisconsin.com). A popular boating spot, the lake is surrounded by pine and oak woods where visitors can picnic and camp.

But there's no denying the appeal of the Wisconsin Dells' man-made attractions. Noah's Ark Waterpark, 1410 Wisconsin Dells Pkwy. (tel. 608/254-6351; www.noahsarkwaterpark.com), which claims to be the nation's largest, offers 47 water slides, two wave pools, two endless rivers, 4 children's water play areas, minigolf, and 12 restaurants and lounges. The park's newest addition is a 4D Dive-In Theatre that incorporates watery special affects throughout the movie. A day pass costs $33 adults, $26 children under 47 inches, age 2 and under free.

The popularity -- and plethora -- of indoor waterparks in the Dells has made the area a year-round family destination. Parks combine water slides, wave pools, and squirting toys with resort-style accommodations (and sometimes golf and spa facilities) under one roof at an affordable price. Great Wolf Lodge, 1400 Great Wolf Dr. (tel. 800/559-WOLF [559-9653]; www.greatwolflodge.com), follows a North Woods log cabin theme and offers lots of children's activities. Rates begin at $129 for a family of four. Kalahari Resort, 1305 Kalahari Dr. (tel. 877/525-2427; www.kalahariresort.com), also has a day spa on-site. Rates begin at $129. One of the Dells' largest waterpark resorts, which also claims to be the nation's largest, is Wilderness Lodge, 511 E. Adams St. (tel. 800/867-WILD [867-9453]; www.wildernessresort.com), with over 12 football fields' worth of indoor and outdoor waterpark fun, as well as dry parks, nearly 450 hotel rooms, cabins, condos, 9-hole and 18-hole golf courses, and a spa. Room rates begin at $99. Note: Rates for all of the above resorts include waterpark entry and lodging for up to four guests.

Wally's House of Embers, 935 Wisconsin Dells Pkwy., Lake Delton (tel. 608/253-6411; www.houseofembers.com), has been a Dells institution since 1959. The family-owned restaurant specializes in ribs but also serves fresh seafood and steaks. The romantic themed rooms are worth reserving for a special night out. For great burgers, sandwiches, and salads, check out Monks Bar & Grill, 220 Broadway (tel. 608/254-2955; www.monksbarandgrill.com), a local fixture with a friendly staff.

The Dells -- both the town and the geologic wonder -- are 55 miles north of Madison off I-90/94. For information, contact the Wisconsin Dells Visitor and Convention Bureau, 701 Superior St., Wisconsin Dells (tel. 800/223-3557; www.wisdells.com).

Door County

Door County's rugged Lake Michigan coast, fishing villages (now converted into resort towns), and laid-back atmosphere draw scores of visitors looking for family and romantic getaways. With Green Bay to the west and Lake Michigan on three sides, Door County is a 75-mile-long strip of cliffs and unsullied beaches with 250 miles of limestone or dune coastline. No matter where you are on the peninsula, you're never more than 10 minutes from a water view.

Routes 57 and 42 circle the peninsula, passing through splendid natural scenery and inviting towns like the bayside villages of Fish Creek, Sister Bay, and Ephraim, each one charmingly different from the next. Tidy dairy farms and fruit orchards with ubiquitous red barns dot the landscape. Contact the Door County Chamber of Commerce, 1015 Green Bay Rd., Sturgeon Bay (tel. 800/52-RELAX [527-3529] or 920/743-4456; www.doorcounty.com), for detailed information.

Door County is home to several lovely state parks, each with miles of hiking and biking trails, fishing, sailing, camping, and swimming in the summer; beautiful fall leaf-peeping in the fall; and cross-country skiing and snowmobiling in the winter. Peninsula State Park, near Fish Creek (tel. 920/868-3258), has all of that, a picturesque lighthouse, 18 holes of championship golf, and the American Folklore Theatre. Ninety-foot dunes, jagged cliffs, and surf-carved caves lure visitors to Whitefish Dunes State Park, near Jacksonport (tel. 920/823-2400). Potawatomi State Park, near Sturgeon Bay (tel. 920/746-2890), has a nice observation tower offering sweeping views of Green Bay. State park campgrounds are popular -- be sure to reserve a site early (tel. 888/947-2757). An annual pass to any Wisconsin state park costs $25 for state residents, $35 for others; a day pass costs $7 for Wisconsin residents, $10 for others. Camping fees run $12 to $17. For online info on Wisconsin's state parks, visit www.dnr.state.wi.us/org/land/parks.

Art galleries and crafts boutiques are located throughout Door County. Fish Creek, Egg Harbor, Sister Bay, and Ephraim have the best assortment. Edgewood Orchard Galleries, 4140 Peninsula Players Rd., Fish Creek (tel. 920/868-3579; www.edgewoodorchard.com), exhibit oil paintings, jewelry, metal, and glass works, most of which are created by Wisconsin artists. Dovetail Gallery, 7901 Hwy. 42, Egg Harbor (tel. 920/868-3987; www.dovetailgallery.com), displays jewelry, Fimo clay, glass, and copper works, but is best known for its plethora of works crafted locally from eggshells. And Popelka Trenchard, 64 S. 2nd Ave. (tel. 920/743-7287; www.popelkaglass.com), creates vibrant glass art in a studio/gallery in Sturgeon Bay.

French and Scandinavian fishermen settled the Door in the 17th century, and the surrounding waters are still home to a mother lode of walleye, pike, trout, and salmon. Fish boils are the stuff of ceremonial ritual here: Fresh whitefish, onions, and potatoes are tossed into a boiling cauldron, then finished off when a pint of kerosene is splashed onto the wood fire. This quintessential Door County dinner is available throughout the peninsula, with most restaurants charging about $20 per adult, $12 per child, including Door County cherry pie. The White Gull Inn, 4225 Main St., Fish Creek (tel. 920/868-3517; www.whitegullinn.com), claims to have been boiling fish longer than anyone else on the peninsula. The Square Rigger, 6332 Hwy. 57, Jacksonport (tel. 877/347-4264; www.squareriggerlodge.com), serves their fish boil in their dining room rather than from a buffet line.

For an authentic Swedish breakfast of pancakes with lingonberry sauce, everyone heads to Al Johnson's Swedish Restaurant, 10698 N. Bayshore Dr., Sister Bay (tel. 800/241-9914; www.aljohnsons.com). You'll recognize the building from its sod-covered roof (where you might see a grazing goat or two keeping the grass trimmed). Wilson's Restaurant and Ice Cream Parlor, Route 42, Ephraim (tel. 920/854-2041), has been serving sundaes, chocolate sodas, and burgers under its red-and-white awning since 1906. Enjoy fine dining at the Mission Grille, Hwys. 42 and 57, Sister Bay (tel. 920/854-9070; www.missiongrille.com), a remodeled turn-of-the-20th-century church incorporating local Wisconsin ingredients and serving an outstanding wine list.

Door County is known for its romantic B&Bs. The Whistling Swan, 4192 Main St., Fish Creek (tel. 77-4289 or 920/868-3442; www.whistlingswan.com), was built on mainland Wisconsin in 1887 and moved across the frozen Green Bay 20 years later to serve as an inn. It remains a charming B&sB, furnished with antiques. Doubles start at $100 and include continental breakfast. Across the street is the elegant White Gull Inn, 4225 Main St. (tel. 888/364-9542 or 920/868-3517; www.whitegullinn.com). Doubles begin at $150 and include a full breakfast. Edgewater Resort, 10040 Water St., Ephraim (tel. 800/603-5331 or 920/854-2734; www.edge-waterresort.com), features spacious accommodations, most with water views and balconies, some with double whirlpool tubs and kitchens. Doubles begin at $80.

Note: This information was accurate when it was published, but can change without notice. Please be sure to confirm all rates and details directly with the companies in question before planning your trip.