By Drew Olson Special to Published Aug 25, 2009 at 2:18 PM

Let's face it, taking a vacation is tough these days. Everyone's tightening their belts, and airfare alone to get far from Wisconsin might be more than you've budgeted for a getaway. But the time-honored road trip may be just what you need this summer -- a fun escape on just a tank or two of gas. Fortunately, we've come up with a few car trips that won't break the bank. Pack a lunch and get going.

Manitowoc (approximate round-trip mileage from Milwaukee: 158)

The assignment called for me to get in the car, drive someplace, experience a few things and write about my adventure.

I certainly didn't intend to go to Manitowoc.

In fact, I was trying to decide which city to visit when Manitowoc kind of jumped out and grabbed me. In the past few weeks, I made several trips to Green Bay in order to watch the Packers practice and / or play. Either coming or going, I found myself pulling over in Manitowoc to gas up the car, stretch my legs and grab a dollar menu sandwich and soda for the road.

Believe it or not, that routine quickly grew tiresome. While driving south from Packerland early one afternoon, I pulled off on Highway 151 and decided to do a little exploring in Manitowoc.

That's when I met The Penguin.

I'm not talking about Burgess Meredith or other Batman villain. I'm talking about the historic Penguin Drive-in Restaurant, located at 3900 Calumet Ave.

The place looked so retro and cool that I had to stop and do some investigating. The Penguin, it seems, began as Harold and Leila Weyer's roadside custard stand in 1936. The couple showed free drive-in movies behind the stand to attract customers. In the mid-'40s, the Weyers ditched the food stand and opened a drive-in. The name, "Penguin," was chosen to trade on the popularity of the signature custard. The drive-in building burned in 1961, but was replaced that year. Indoor seating was added in 1973, which allowed the building to stay open year-round. Gradually, the business evolved into a family restaurant.

I took a seat at the lunch counter and ordered a Penguin with fried onions, fries and a chocolate malt; they were all outstanding. I struck up a conversation with a truck driver who uses his customized rig as a mobile billboard at various events around the country. Once I showed interest in the concept, he went out to his car and brought in a photo album stuffed with pictures of his rig and the HD video he can run from a computer inside.

After a delicious and unexpectedly educational lunch, I headed further into town. I'd always heard that Manitowoc had a beautiful harbor and I sort of remembered visiting it as a kid. I wanted to see if anything looked familiar, so I drove through the quaint Downtown area and came upon the Wisconsin Maritime Museum, 75 Maritime Dr.

Now, I remembered from grade school that Manitowoc had shipbuilding past. I recalled that the Lincoln High School's sports teams were called "The Ships."

The Maritime Museum brought that home. Admission is $12 for adults and $10 for kids ages 6 to 15. The Museum is open daily at 9 a.m. (it closes at 5 p.m. most of the year, but 6 p.m. in the summer). Visitors can explore all kinds of maritime memorabilia and tour the USS COBIA, a World War II submarine that is docked just outside.

While much of the museum appeals to hardcore "boat geeks," the COBIA is a highlight. It has been restored to its original 1945 configuration and visitors can tour topside and inside, looking at torpedo rooms, crew's quarters, engine rooms and the like.

COBIA was built in Connecticut, it is similar to other subs built in Manitowoc during WWII like the USS Hawkbill. It also has a Wisconsin connection. In the late 1950s, the U.S. Navy deemed COBIA obsolete as a warship and sent it to the Milwaukee Naval Reserve Center, where it served as a training platform until 1970, when it was decommissioned, towed to Manitowoc and later incorporated into museum and declared a National Historic Landmark.

After checking out the exhibits at the museum, I pondered -- for just a second -- jumping on the Lake Michigan Carferry -- the S.S. BADGER -- and heading to Ludington, Mich. Instead, I drove to the harbor and took a walk along the pristine shoreline.

It was quiet when I dropped by, but the area seemed perfect for a picnic, a jog or an afternoon of sunbathing and watching sailboats and seagulls.

With time running out, I decided to bypass a trip to the Lincoln Park Zoo, which is free, and decided to wander a bit downtown, which reminded me a bit of Racine and Kenosha's harbor areas.

After hearing on the radio that Les Paul had passed, I was drawn to Golden Ring Music, 1003 Washington St. The store, which opened in 1972, features mostly new guitars, amps and band instruments. Most impressive, though, was the collection of sheet music, instructional books and CDs / DVDs. It's a good place to browse for a while and the proprietors seemed quite friendly.

Not far away, I found a store called Crystal Pathway, 1106 Washington St., and immediately thought of my co-worker, Molly Snyder Edler. The store features a whole bunch of crystals (hence the name) as well as books, jewelry, candles, essential oils, Native American drums and homemade fairies.

With dinner time approaching, I asked a few locals where they'd recommend eating. One mentioned Friar Tuck's, an Old English spot I'd driven by on my way into town. Another said Tuck's was "too dark and smoky" and suggested a trip to Legend Larry's Wings & Things, 712 York St. I've sampled Legend Larry's wings before and they are exquisite.

But, I had planned on dinner with the family so decided to head back to the freeway. On the way, I checked out Stock's Harley-Davidson, 2433 Hecker Rd., which offers motorcycles, parts, accessories, clothes and collectibles. I grabbed a trinket for a friend who is Harley-Davidson enthusiast and hit the trail, determined to visit Manitowoc again, perhaps to hit the farmer's market (Tuesday afternoon and Saturday morning), Friar Tuck's and maybe even a few bars.

I want to find out why the storefront Downtown says "Manitowoc Main Street" instead of promoting a business. Heck, maybe I'll even talk to the mayor, Justin Nickels, who became an alderman while still in high school and was elected mayor at the age of 22.

If you go to Manitowoc this week, check out the County Fair at the Expo Center, 4921 Expo Dr. Admission is $10 and I'd be happy to hear what it's like.

Drew Olson Special to

Host of “The Drew Olson Show,” which airs 1-3 p.m. weekdays on The Big 902. Sidekick on “The Mike Heller Show,” airing weekdays on The Big 920 and a statewide network including stations in Madison, Appleton and Wausau. Co-author of Bill Schroeder’s “If These Walls Could Talk: Milwaukee Brewers” on Triumph Books. Co-host of “Big 12 Sports Saturday,” which airs Saturdays during football season on WISN-12. Former senior editor at Former reporter at the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel.