Fond du Lac serves up affordable, active family fun
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For families who want a nature-centered getaway destination with mid-size-city amenities, Fond du Lac is a solid choice. Only an hour from Milwaukee, the car ride isn't too brutal for young kids and yet it really feels "far away" from the city. Plus, the prices, particularly in restaurants, are noticeably cheaper. Bonus.
"For families considering a road trip, Fond du Lac really shines," says Craig Molitor, president of the Fond du Lac Area Visitors Bureau. "It's easy to get to from Milwaukee, your money will go a long way and who doesn't love a lake?"
On a recent weekend visit to Fond du Lac, located at the foot of Lake Winnebago, we stayed at the Country Inn Suites. We had stayed in a Country Inn before in Freeport, Ill., and both times, found the experience to be top-notch for a chain of low-cost hotels.
We love having access to such a well-maintained pool and whirlpool and the complimentary breakfast goes well beyond "continental." It even includes a make-your-own waffle station which was well received by the kids.
One of the best aspects of our trip was how active we were both indoors and out. Fond du Lac has many beautiful parks with lots of recreational options. Our favorite was Lakeside Park, which we visited twice.
During our first trip, we climbed to the top of the lighthouse, which is the symbol of Fond du Lac. The lighthouse is open every day, weather permitting, from 8 a.m. to sunset and, after climbing about six flights of stairs, offers a gorgeous view of the lake and the park.
During our second visit to the park, we crossed the numerous bridges, hung out on the gazebos, watched families of geese and rode on the carousel, the small train and the "whip ride." There's also a large playground, petting zoo, canoe rental, soccer fields, a baseball diamond and a concessions stand. There really isn't a park like this in Milwaukee, but there should be.
Lakeside Park is an absolutely awesome setting for taking family / sibling photos. We have many from our visits that are definitely "framers." Someday, we'd like to return to the park in winter. We were told there's a magnificent holiday lights display and that Rudolph finds his way to the top of the lighthouse.
Another high point of our trip was visiting The Octagon House, listed on the National Register of Historic Places and featured as a haunted house on the History Channel show, "Hidden Passages."
We called ahead to arrange a tour with the quirky and likable owner, Marlene Hansen, a former circus trapeze artist / dancer / costume maker who bought the house in 1975 for $25,000 without ever stepping foot inside.
The eight-sided house was built in 1856 by a carpenter and fur trader, Isaac Brown, who was fearful of attacks by Native Americans. Consequently, he built the house with lots of hiding places – including a secret room behind a book case and an underground tunnel.
Because of the hiding options, the house became a stop on the Underground Railroad, and one secret space, behind a fake built-in dresser, still features messages carved into the walls by escaped slaves, telling other slaves where to go next and the names of people who will help them.
Hansen is a wonderful storyteller, and will offer up ghost stories if asked. She has a fantastic collection of antiques, dolls and costumes, all of which she made, and the house is very well maintained – amazingly dust free! – and decorated very carefully and artistically. Hansen offers tours, teas and even dinners in the dining room that's complete with working phonographs.
The Octagon House alone is worth a trip to Fond du Lac.
We ate in a variety of tasty and very affordable restaurants. All of the sandwiches and entrees were about $2-3 less than we usually pay in Milwaukee.
We ate at the Main Exchange which has an early 20th century decor, a kids' menu, popcorn on the floor, a full bar and a vintage "love detector" that, for a quarter, will measure your passion level.
But our favorite eatery of the weekend was Trepanier's Backyard Grill & Bar. It has a lively atmosphere, a nice patio and a really diverse menu offering soups, salads, wraps, burger, chicken sandwiches, steaks, ribs, pastas, fish and a kid's menu. Inside, the walls are adorned with hundreds of license plates which were fun to look at it.
We also had a good fish fry at Schmitty's Oar House; malts at Gille's – always a blast to go to a drive-in and eat in the car – and bagels and coffee at Bagelmeister. Next time, we hope to visit one of the supper clubs, perhaps Sunset Supper Club or Jim & Linda's.
Plus, all weekend we munched on locally made, small-batch Faris Popcorn, which comes in dozens of different flavors. We recommend the peanut butter and jelly.
Nina Schmidt has lived in Fond du Lac her entire life. She grew up in North Fond du Lac, and currently lives in town with her husband and three school-aged kids.
"We have been really lucky to find a school with teachers that embrace the idea that it takes a community to raise and educate kids. I lean heavily on our school for support and help with our kids," says Schmidt. "I appreciate being able to walk to anywhere I really need to go, or drive an extra three minutes and be in the country or out in the woods."
The Children's Museum of Fond du Lac is about a quarter of the size of the Betty Brinn Children's Museum, but makes excellent use of the space. The kids had a great time making colorful animal masks, "broadcasting" in the radio station, "working" at the pizzeria, "fishing" in the pond and making shadows on the massive shadow wall. (This was particularly cool and unlike anything we'd seen before.)
Admission to the museum is $5 and it's open every day except Mondays. According to an employee, the museum plans to move this year to a new, undetermined location.
We stopped at Do-It-All Sports, a family-friendly indoor recreation arena. Once we got accustomed to the smell (what do you expect in an enclosed space with so many people exerting themselves?), we really had a good time and got more exercise as a family than we have in ages. The kids played on the climbing structure; we played basketball and soccer; we boxed.
There's also a pool table, air hockey game, arcade, snack bar and paintball area. The cost is $5 per half hour or $7 per hour. Paintball is extra.
Later, we bowled two games at Ledgeview Lanes, which offered us lanes next to each other, one for kids with bumpers and one for the adults without. We appreciated this, along with the fact they had lots of low-weight balls for kids.
We ended our trip with a stop at Chimera Hobby to get reading material for the return ride. The kids stocked up on Archie comics, including one featuring Barack Obama. We also picked up a "peg game" – the one that has a triangular board – that they took turns playing on the short trip home. The game reminded me of Fond du Lac: simple, classic and fun.
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