Seven Wonders of Wisconsin: Eagle River / chain of lakes
Who needs the Great Wall of China and Chichen Itza? Wisconsin is full of wonders that are much closer to home. So pack up the car, fire up the GPS and get ready to crisscross America's Dairyland with OnMilwaukee.com as we travel to the Seven Wonders of Wisconsin this summer.
EAGLE RIVER – The drive from Milwaukee to Eagle River takes about four-and-a-half hours, but it's easy and scenic. Although Eagle River is on Highway 45, to shorten the trip, travelers from Milwaukee can cruise up Highway 41 to Oshkosh. But taking Highway 45 through Fond du Lac and driving along Lake Winnebago provides an even prettier view of beautiful Wisconsin.
To break it up a bit, we stopped off in the town of Antigo, where we rolled through a drive-up coffee stand called Mountain Mudd and bought a couple of well-prepared lattes, followed by a quick trip to the local thrift shop where we found a vintage movie screen – something we had been seeking for a long time – in perfect condition for $2.
We took this find as an omen that we were going to have a fantastic three-day adventure in Eagle River, and we were right.
Eagle River, located in the stunning Northwoods, is surrounded by miles and miles of pine trees. It is on the chain of 28 lakes, the largest connected freshwater chain on the planet, and is a world-class fishing destination with incredible musky, panfish and bass fishing.
"We're just north of the tension line," says Conrad Heeg, who has been the executive director of the Eagle River Area Chamber of Commerce & Visitors Center for 11 years.
And indeed, Eagle River is relaxing and comfortable. All of the establishments in the area – including the more upscale restaurants – have a casual vibe and most people just wear shorts and sandals, on and off the water.
Though many property owners are affluent and, when they're in the area vacationing, they're staying in their second or third homes, the attractions are affordable and vacationers renting cabins or staying at the resorts will find Eagle River very accommodating.
The Eagle River area really is for everyone who wants to enjoy stress-free living, even if only briefly.
According to Heeg, Eagle River was originally developed in the 1800s for farming and, after clear cutting much of the area for timber to build cities, the state government sold the land cheaply to inspire people to move to the area and farm.
"But the growing season is short up here – about a month shorter than it is in Milwaukee – and people realized it was the lakes that made this area so incredible," says Heeg.
The Northwoods: Nature's water park
On the second day of our visit, Heeg graciously took us out on his family's pontoon for an afternoon of lake exploration. The lakes are divided into two areas: the Three Lakes side and the Eagle River side. Heeg describes the Three Lakes chain as "more wild," offering frequent spottings of eagle, deer and moose. We saw two eagles and a couple of large eagles' nests during our boating experience.
"There are more houses, bars and golf courses on the Eagle River side," says Heeg, who lived in the Milwaukee area prior to moving to the Northwoods.
The lakes run about 18-30 feet deep on average, with the deepest being about 57 feet. Because the paper mills and industrial sites are farther down stream, the quality of water is exceptional.
Many visitors hire a fishing guide to help them reel in the "Big One," as well as to learn valuable fishing tips. Summer vacationers can experience just about any water sport thanks to the variety of equipment for rent, including boats of all kinds, water skis, fishing gear and life jackets.
"You can rent just about anything here, except swimming trunks," jokes Heeg.
We were fortunate to experience three very different boating opportunities during our visit, including the pontoon trip with Heeg, a canoe excursion and a cruise on a pirate ship.
The canoe was provided by the Chanticleer Inn where we stayed for two of our three nights in Eagle River. We spent one afternoon peacefully canoeing around a few of the lakes and enjoyed seeing lots of loons and lily pads.
The Chanticleer offers villas, suites, condos and hotel rooms. Most are located on the banks of the river between Eagle Lake and Voyager Lake.
The Inn – named after a rooster in Chaucer's "Canterbury Tales" – was built in 1922 and has a rustic-meets-modern feel with an Up North-architectural charm and modern-day amenities like large flat screen HDTVs.
Once off water, wet your whistle
The Chanticleer has an onsite bar and restaurant called Waterview that offers indoor and outdoor seating with a beautiful view of the water. Happy Hour starts at 3 p.m. and dinners – ranging from salads to hamburgers – start at 5 p.m.
The beer selection in Eagle River, for the most part, is very good. Most establishments carry an array of Leinenkugel products on tap, along with Spotted Cow, Guinness, both Bud and Miller, and often a few micro surprises, too.
On the first night, we went to The Tipsy Turtle, where we ordered $3 "Turtletinis" made from vodka, apple pucker and sweet and sour. After a couple of rounds, we found ourselves out back playing a rollicking game of cornhole.
The Tipsy Turtle is a Florida-esque structure that's only open during the summer months. They also serve long island ice teas, martinis, blue lagoons, "sex on the beach" and a decent beer selection. On Wednesday nights there is live music and a shrimp boil.
Another tavern, BBT's Speakeasy, is located on the bustling Wall Street and accommodates both full-time residents and tourists. BBT's – which stands for "Bob, Bob & Terry's" even though one of the Bobs was recently bought out – has 290 record albums on the wall and a "find the album" game that's offered to drinkers by the bartender. There's also a stuffed musky on the wall that, according to barkeep Liz Butler, won a world record in 1985. The musky is displayed next to a shotgun that's the top prize in an upcoming raffle.
"It's fun here," says Butler, who moved to Eagle River from Idaho. "The locals here are really nice and not in your business constantly."
During our visit at BBT's, we had the chance to chat with a few locals who lived in Eagle River year-round, unlike the thousands of tourists who come each summer from, primarily, Milwaukee, Green Bay and the Chicago area.
The year-rounders said that they liked living there, but admitted the winters were long. One woman, who recently moved from Chicago to Eagle River, recommended a few places for us to visit, including the nearby Lac du Flambeau reservation, which we will definitely check out next time. They have open-to-the-public pow wows on Thursday nights during the summer that cost $7 for adults and $5 for kids.
Fantastic food from fudge to fish fries
Eagle River's downtown centers on Wall Street, which features bars, restaurants, a drug store, a movie theater with first-run films, a candy and fudge shop and a variety of souvenir stores.
Since we weren't going to buy moccasins, as so many visitors do, we decided it was our duty as tourists to at least stop in Tremblay's for fudge and taffy. We could barely choose from the fudge flavors – chocolate, vanilla, maple, peanut butter and peanut butter chocolate – but finally settled on vanilla. It was creamier and lighter than the proverbial fudge that's stuck to the bottom of Christmas tins.
We also bought a huge bag of saltwater taffy and had fun picking out flavors from root beer to raspberry and talking to twin sister candy makers, Kelly and Kayla Wons, who are spending their fifth summer working at Tremblay's.
There are two other Tremblay's in the Midwest: one in Hayward and one in Stillwater, Minn.
It's accurate to say that just about every morsel we put in our mouths during our visit to Eagle River was a superb taste experience.
On our first night, we had a delicious dinner at Eagle Waters Restaurant and Bar. Eagle Waters' decor is very Northwoodsy with log walls, high ceilings and adorned with interesting antiques like canoes, sleds, steamer trunks, picnic baskets, tools and ice skates. There are two pianos, a fireplace and a model train layout onsite, as well.
The Eagle Waters Restaurant is located on the grounds of the first settlement in Eagle River.
All of the entrees are under $20 and include options like pork chops, ribs, walleye and pasta. We had a delicious grouper fillet for $15 and it came with a choice of potato (twice baked; no brainer), a side of asparagus and a trip to the massive and fresh salad bar.
We also had a classic fish fry dinner at Twelve Pines Restaurant, located on the shores of Catfish Lake. The all-you-can-eat fish fry offered three choices of baked or fried fish. The side of baked beans with chopped onions was particularly delicious. Twelve Pines has a screened tiki bar attached to the restaurant oozing with an Easy Breezy Vacation Feeling.
After dinner at Twelve Pines, we stopped at The White Spruce Inn, a great place to have a classic Northwoods experience, too. Since we just ate, we did not sample the cuisine in the supper club-like restaurant, but we did enjoy a drink on their sunny patio complete with a full bar overlooking Eagle River.
We also dined at The Riverstone Restaurant. It has more of an upscale feel and a very extensive wine list, yet, as I said, people dine in comfortable clothing. The menu features prime rib, salmon, beef tenderloin, chicken, ribs, seafood pizza, pasta and more. The prices range from about $15 to $30.
We ordered an artichoke dip that was very good, along with a salmon salad and Alaskan haddock baked in a superb breadcrumb and prawn crust. The haddock was quite possibly the most delicious item we ate on the trip.
However, the most amazing aspect of our dinner at Riverstone was that we got there via pirate ship. It's true: Steve Strauss – aka "Captain Steve" – and his family gave us a ride on their self-built pirate ship to the Riverstone.
Strauss, who wears full-pirate attire when manning his boat, built the family-friendly pirate ship eight years ago and offers two-hour cruises around the chain of lakes. The ship runs, weather pending, from Memorial Day until Eagle River's Cranberry Festival which, this year, is Oct. 1-2, 2011.
Strauss also operates an Eagle River ice cream shop and will soon open a tiki bar and grill.
As hopeless caffeine junkies, we visited all three coffee shops. Some twice. Eagle River Coffee Roasters fire roasts their coffee and espresso on site. They serve coffee drinks, tea, breakfast bagels, soup, paninis and smoothies. We really enjoyed the coffee, so much so that we brought back a pound of their Night Owl espresso.
During our visit, I asked the barista the meaning of "fire roasted" beans. "Fire roasting is like grilling a steak over a flame rather than cooking it by heat in the oven," she said.
Eagle River Coffee Roasters has a new tea garden, plenty of seating, electrical outlets for laptoppers and a small, well-stocked kids' area.
We also went to the Mocha Moose, which serves Ancora coffee from Madison, and a variety of coffee drinks from the usual to the unusual, like a Bananafana Latte.
We particularly liked the Kitchen Kafe, located behind the Flour Sack shop, which serves Alterra Coffee and offers extremely affordable home-cooked breakfasts. An egg, cheese and ham breakfast sandwich, for example, is $2.99 and an omelet with toast is $4.99.
Notably, you can pick out any cheese from the cooler at the adjoined Flour Sack and have it cooked into your omelet. The Flour Sack also sells specialty candy, gourmet food items, kitchen supplies and gifts.
Boats are a blast, but land rides are lively, too
Eagle River is the snowmobiling capital of the world, which draws a large tourist contingent in the winter months, too. It is home to both the World Championship Snowmobile Derby – the largest, oldest snowmobile race in the world will celebrate its 50-year anniversary next year – and the World Snowmobile Headquarters.
The headquarters feature hundreds of "race sleds," from vintage versions made by Harley-Davidson to modern-day Skidoos. Fantastic action photos adorn the walls and there's an interesting case dedicated to "Women On Snow."
"At one time, there were 140 manufacturers of snowmobiles. Today, you have four," says Tom Anderson, president of the World Snowmobile headquarters.
According to Anderson, despite a struggling economy, snowmobile sales are up 10 to 12 percent. "People are still buying snowmobiles," he says.
When on land, there are many riding options in Eagle River, from the aforementioned snowmobiles to go-carts to four-legged, apple-munching people movers. In fact, we spent an entire morning on horseback at Rockin' W Stables & Kartway. Rockin' W has about 20 quarter horses and for $18 offers a 45-minute, guided horseback trek on well-groomed trails through the woods.
I had not ridden a horse since I was in Girl Scouts – and my travel partner had never ridden one. I admit I was slightly apprehensive about trusting a being that poops and walks at the same time.
Our guide, an 18-year-old rider named Lily, led the way with confidence, and other than the fact that my horse tripped a couple of times, I enjoyed myself immensely. My horse was a 12-year-old named "Dude" (I renamed him "The Dude," of course, for love of "The Big Lebowski.") The other horse was named "Lucky." Adding extra fun to the experience, I had just rented "True Grit" and a couple episodes of "Deadwood" from Netflix.
Rockin' W Stables & Kartway also features an 18-hole mini-golf course, two go-cart tracks and bumper boats.
Fun and frolic for the whole fam
After riding, we stopped by the 31st Annual Kids Day at the Vilas County Fairgrounds, a fishing event for kids ages 7 to 12 that features a parade, a cast-off contest (with fishing pole prizes, of course) and either an afternoon of fishing with a guide or a visit to a trout hatchery.
"This is a way for the Eagle River Guides Association to give back to the community," says Kim Emerson, the chamber events coordinator.
The free event was well attended and the next one is scheduled for Thursday, July 12, 2012.
In general, Eagle River is extremely kid-friendly, and offers an interactive children's museum. The Northwoods Children's Museum has an outdoor garden, a modern and old time grocery store where kids can pretend shop and learn about money management, an art studio, a pioneer cabin and a bubble science station. "Children learn best by doing, not viewing," is the museum's tag line.
On our third and final night in Eagle River, we stayed at the Eagle River Inn & Resort. We were grateful to be accommodated because the hotel was packed with families dropping off or picking up their kids from the many area camps.
Turns out, the room that was available to us was a honeymoon suite of sorts complete with a four-poster bed draped with lacy material atop a carpeted, step-up platform. The room also featured a massive whirlpool and red-bulbed lighting. (Eagle River is for lovers? Sure, why not.)
The next morning, we enjoyed a decent complimentary breakfast at the Inn and then we stopped by Artarama, an annual juried art fair with about 140 artists from all over the country. The fair also features live music, food and kids' activities. Artarama is a non-profit organization and proceeds return to the area communities for scholarships, artist-in-residence programs and art promotion.
We had already bought a painted parrot carved from a large log from a roadside artist the day before, so we didn't splurge on any art at Artarama. However, after three days of delicious sweets, from fudge to saltwater taffy to creamy-topped mochas, we decided to indulge one last time with a bag of kettle corn. The perfect way to end an extremely enjoyable three days in the Northwoods.
Great job on the article! This was quite a thorough description of the Northwoods! As an 30- year veteran of owning of a resort in Eagle River, I am glad to see Eagle River is still seen as a tourist destination, which it most definitely is! Our cabins are right on the chain of lakes and only 2 miles from the town of Eagle River. www.eagleriverlastresort.com. We frequently see Captain Steve from our nice sandy beach!
I was just up there. I didn't want to leave. Beautiful. Peaceful.
Great article, Molly. And the photos were great too Royal. Thanks for updating those of us in the "south" about the "northwoods".
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