The Spring Green area, an hour west of Madison, is the Wisconsin Dells for adults.
Rather than careen down a giant water slide at the Dells, you can canoe and kayak down nature's slippery finger, the Wisconsin River, when you visit Spring Green. A 92-mile stretch of the lower Wisconsin is ideal for leisurely paddling, and you can beach your vessel on a lovely sand dune at the town's back door.
Riding the Ducks in the Dells is a particularly exciting and uncommon adventure for children. Touring the eccentric House on the Rock between Spring Green and Dodgeville is a more adult way to sample the unusual.
The Rick Wilcox Magic Show in the Dells baffles minds from 7 to 70. A different kind of theatrical magic is spun in summer and fall at Spring Green's American Players Theatre.
And the magic of visual perception, brilliantly employed by local boy Frank Lloyd Wright, is celebrated by Taliesin Preservation, Inc., which offers the opportunity to marvel at the world famous architect's creations 51 years after his death. The Spring Green area is where he chose to live most of his life, and the public can taste the rich flavor of his work and esthetic at the museum and learning center that survives him.
I first traveled to Spring Green in 1980 to report on the founding of a new classical theater company, the American Players Theatre, and as a theater critic, I have returned several times each year.
That adds up to nearly 100 trips to the Spring Green area, nearly 500 meals consumed there, and more than 7,000 hours of free time exploring the nooks and crannies of what is known as the "Driftless Area" of Wisconsin. It's called that because the land was not touched by glaciers, resulting in some of the state's prettiest scenery.
Here are my suggestions for dining, things to see and other activities in greater Spring Green and several nearby communities.
For breakfast and lunch, don't miss the Spring Green General Store, an institution here. You have a good chance of encountering an American Players Theatre actor eating the house specialties, which include burritos, chili and hummus. True to its name, the general store sells everything from earrings and women's apparel to beer from microbreweries and greeting cards.
My suggestion for dinner is The Bank Restaurant and Wine Bar, somewhat hidden inside the 1915 Neoclassical Revival style building that initially housed the State Bank of Spring Green. Located on Spring Green's main drag, Jefferson Street, the restaurant blends an attractively designed interior and ambiance with an excellent wine list and gourmet menu that does not require you to empty your account at the bank.
The natural beauty of the Spring Green area has appealed to artists dating back to the early 20th century, when Frank Lloyd Wright began work on Taliesin, his 600-acre estate. Browsers and serious shoppers can check out the Wisconsin Artist Showcase at the Jura Silverman Gallery in the heart of the village's downtown. Everything from prints and paintings to handmade paper and art furniture are on display.
Walk a few blocks and check out the No Rules Gallery in the Albany Street Shops, across the street from the General Store, where jewelry, pottery, tiles and stained glass abound. Its sister shop, Bird of Paradise Tea, has expanded to include tables and home baked pies. The gallery and tea room are connected by an interior wall opening.
Panacea, which is in the same cluster of businesses, offers an extensive array of soaps, gifts and kitchen items. And Convivio, a few blocks away, is popular for its mix of art, wine and tableware.
Wright's Taliesin complex is just over the Wisconsin River south of Spring Green. Six tours, all starting from the Wright-designed visitor's center, offer a detailed look at the architect's life and work. The Riverview Terrace Cafe, operated by Madison's Hubbard Avenue Diner, serves lunch, dinner and a great view in the visitor's center.
You may not know that the American Players Theatre now mounts shows in a 201-seat indoor theater as well as on its much loved outdoor stage. It is one of the best classical theater companies in the country.
If you think you don't like Shakespeare, catch one of the Bard's comedies there. You'll be surprised.
After the theater, head for The Shed. It is known for its tasty bar food, outstanding pie and good vibes.
Another of those Spring Green institutions, The Shed is where the APT actors go to unwind after performances. Take your theater programs for autographs.
The 18 miles you drive south on Highway 23 from Spring Green to Dodgeville is among the most scenic routes in the state. You will pass entrances to Governor Dodge State Park and The House on the Rock, an incredible collection of stuff and rambling buildings dating back to the construction of the original 14-room house in the 1940s. Perched on Deer Shelter Rock high above the pastoral Wyoming Valley, the house and a 375-foot enclosed ramp that pokes through surrounding treetops offer gorgeous visual vistas.
Celebrating its 50th anniversary as a tourist attraction this year, the House is a regular stop for bus tours and thousands of vacationers visiting the area. As the operation has expanded, its style has diversified.
Some of the complex has a carnival fun house feel, with a giant indoor carousel being the most impressive item on the entire property. A short segment that offers a small replica of a century-old city street is more like a museum, and the 200 doll houses, dozens of self-playing mechanical musical instruments, old newspaper front pages, pressed dead butterflies and a zillion other assorted curiosities leaves the impression you are viewing the life's work of an obsessive collector.
The House on the Rock empire has grown to include a nearby hotel, and a resort and golf course across the road from the American Players Theatre in Spring Green.
With a population of about 5,000, Dodgeville is three times the size of Spring Green. It offers several chain hotels and restaurants, including Pizza Hut and Country Kitchen.
But the real attraction of Dodgeville is its main thoroughfare, Iowa St. For breakfast, stop at Quality Bakery, a family business since 1928 and among the best old time bakeries in the state. While my weakness is the rhubarb turnovers, Quality's wide variety of goodies range from a savory Cornish pasty to saffron bread and buns.
A few doors away, stop at The Cook's Room, a cafe and espresso bar, to get coffee or lunch. A half block in the other direction on Iowa St., the Hometown Pharmacy offers one of the last drug store soda fountains in Wisconsin.
Get a cherry phosphate. I was warned by a local woman that the malts are addictive.
Walk to the end of that block, and you will be in front of the oldest courthouse in Wisconsin. The cornerstone for the Iowa County courthouse was laid in 1859, and the building opened two years later.
Dodgeville is the home of the Land's End clothing label, and a small outlet store is located on the other side of Iowa St. A few doors away is local clothier Kozelka & Wall, in business since 1927.
Frank Lloyd Wright was born in Richland Center, which is 23 miles northwest of of Spring Green, and his A.D. German Warehouse, built in 1915, experimented with a cork pad foundation that he later used for the Imperial Hotel in Tokyo. Although the hotel survived the devastating Great Kanto Earthquake of 1923, it was razed in 1968. The Richland Center warehouse still stands.
This city of 5,000 is also the home of Ocooch Books and Libations, one of the country's few purveyors of books and booze under the same roof. It's at 145 W. Court St., downtown.
Lunch at the Pine River Market & Cafe, an organic food co-op across the street and down the block. Cafe Fiesta Fe, around the corner on Main Street, imaginatively blends Mexican and American cuisines in an exceedingly pleasant open and airy space. Don't miss the interesting wall photos of several generations of the owner's Mexican-American family.
I've only scratched the surface of things to see, do and eat in the Spring Green area. Don't be shy. Add to the list.
Damien has been around so long, he was at Summerfest the night George Carlin was arrested for speaking the seven dirty words you can't say on TV. He was also at the Uptown Theatre the night Bruce Springsteen's first Milwaukee concert was interrupted for three hours by a bomb scare. Damien was reviewing the concert for the Milwaukee Journal. He wrote for the Journal and Journal Sentinel for 37 years, the last 29 as theater critic.
During those years, Damien served two terms on the board of the American Theatre Critics Association, a term on the board of the association's foundation, and he studied the Latinization of American culture in a University of Southern California fellowship program. Damien also hosted his own arts radio program, "Milwaukee Presents with Damien Jaques," on WHAD for eight years.
Travel, books and, not surprisingly, theater top the list of Damien's interests. A news junkie, he is particularly plugged into politics and international affairs, but he also closely follows the Brewers, Packers and Marquette baskeball. Damien lives downtown, within easy walking distance of most of the theaters he attends.