I’m standing waist high in a bog full of floating, bobbing red cranberries. Luckily, the waders I’m wearing keep me dry, but I’m tempted to dive into the bog and swim with the berries. Instead, I have to content myself with grabbing them by the handful and tossing them in the air. Whee! It’s raining cranberries.
When you think of cranberries, you might assume I’m in New England, but—surprise—I’m in the great state of Wisconsin—better known for its cheese and homegrown football team. In fact, Wisconsin is the No. 1 cranberry producer in the U.S., growing more than 50 percent of the cranberries we consume each year. It’s big business—especially around Tomah and Warrens, Wisconsin, otherwise known as Cranberry County.
Beside cranberries, Wisconsin holds quite a few other surprises. Families and outdoor enthusiasts will find it a prime vacation destination, and if you head off the beaten track, you’ll find friendly folks who are happy you stopped by to enjoy the simple pleasures of life in America’s dairyland.
Truckloads of Berries
Cranberries are a fixture on Thanksgiving tables every fall, but researchers are learning that this little berry is a powerhouse of healthy goodness. With high antioxidant values, cranberries help support memory function, coordination, and a healthy heart. You can eat them straight from the bog—or package—if you like. They’re a little on the tart side, but full of flavor, and you get the maximum nutritional value when you eat them raw. Cranberries can be added to everything from yogurt to salad dressings and deserve to be served year round.
Contrary to popular belief, cranberries don’t actually grow in water. However, at harvest time—usually the first 2-3 weeks of October, farmers fill the bogs with water and then “vacuum” the floating berries out of the water and into waiting trucks. The berries are bagged and boxed at family farms dotting the Wisconsin countryside with minimal processing. Most cranberries end up in food and beverage products, and Ocean Spray has a number of plants in Wisconsin, where truckloads of berries are transformed into over 1000 products.
You can tour cranberry farms in October and learn how cranberries are grown and harvested. Tomah is also home to the Wisconsin Cranberry Discovery Center, open year round, where you can learn about Wisconsin’s No. 1 fruit crop. Hands-on displays detail the growing and harvesting process as well as the history of this lucrative fruit. There’s also a gift shop and snack bar, featuring—what else—cranberry-flavored treats like (mmm!) cranberry ice cream. Tomah is also home to the country’s largest cranberry festival, a three-day event held in September.
The southwest region of Wisconsin—just west of the Dells—is known for its rolling hills and recreation opportunities. Three Bears Lodge in Warrens, for example, offers family-friendly fun year round including cute cabins to rent and an indoor and outdoor waterpark. The region also offers awesome trails for hiking and biking, including Elroy-Sparta State Trail, the first rail-to-trail in the U.S. with three rock tunnels. Birding is also big, and one of the best places to observe migratory birds is Necedah National Wildlife Refuge, where you might even glimpse the elusive whooping crane, an endangered species.
Tucked away in Wisconsin’s northeast region, the Osthoff Resort, an award-winning, world-class destination resort holds court on Elkhart Lake, known for its lush forests, stunning scenery, and cozy small-town vibe. Just an hour north of Milwaukee, the Osthoff Resort was originally built in 1886 as a hotel for well-to-do city dwellers attracted to its peaceful shores and cool, refreshing glacier lake. Recently renovated and expanded, the Osthoff Resort now offers 245 suites and guest rooms, a gourmet restaurant called Lola’s on the Lake, and Aspira Spa, which offers global therapies and unique treatments with a dash of Midwestern friendliness.
Soon after arriving at the resort, I take a stroll around the lake. A wooded trail weaves among lovely homes and cottages along the water’s edge, each with amazing views of the pristine lake. After working up an appetite, I join friends at Lola’s for an amazing gourmet dinner featuring locally sourced products like heirloom tomatoes and Wisconsin cheese—of course. I love the beet salad with local goat cheese and roasted fennel. For protein, I enjoy a healthy portion of beef tartare. Lola’s wine list is amazing, and a New World Malbec proves to be the perfect accompaniment.
The next day begins with an enchanting experience at Aspira Spa. I arrive early, so I can enjoy the whirlpool, sauna, and meditation sanctuary. When it’s time for my treatment, I am led to a spa suite with a fireplace, where my therapist commences to give me a Cedars Massage, one of Aspira’s signature treatments. I’ve been having problems with my hips, and my therapist melts away the tension with her soothing hands. Afterwards, she covers me with a blanket of cedar, and its clean, purifying scent relaxes me even more.
Next it’s time for a cooking class in the Osthoff Resort’s L’ecole de la Maison. I rouse myself after my spa treatment and join a group of wanna-be chefs in the resort’s hands-on instructional kitchen. We don our aprons as Chef Scott Baker, executive chef at the Osthoff, tells us about the dishes we’ll be cooking. We get to choose which one we want to help prepare, and I opt to make the fougasse, a cranberry and walnut-studded bread with a hint of rosemary. The other dishes include fennel, cranberry, and orange salad with Parmesan crisp; salmon en papillote with cranberry-apple compote; swiss chard with cranberries and toasted pine nuts; and crepes suzette with cranberries. Wow! What a cranberry feast. (Check TW’s website for these recipes. Just click on Food, then Eating Well.)
The other students and I have a blast as we try to follow our recipes correctly. The chef runs around the huge island where we are working and gives advice and assistance. My bread looks perfect when it comes out of the oven, and I can’t wait to taste it. Amazingly all of our dishes are ready at about the same time, and we sit down to enjoy the fabulous gourmet feast we have prepared. Everyone raves about my fougasse, but I think everything tastes equally delicious. The Osthoff Resort offers cooking classes year round including special workshops and courses with visiting chefs.
Behind the Scenes
We couldn’t leave Wisconsin without tasting a little cheese, right? We head up to Green Bay, where funny cheese hats are a proud badge of support and visit a cozy shop called Nala’s Fromagerie. Here you can sample cheeses from Wisconsin and around the world, along with a variety of imported wines.
Another tasty place to visit is Seroogy’s, a chocolate institution which began making fine chocolate candies in 1899. Specializing in homemade, hand-dipped chocolates, Seroogy’s attracts candy lovers from near and far. Our group gets a peek behind the scenes, where vats of chocolate yumminess are transformed into bite-sized pieces rolling off assembly lines into waiting boxes. As I taste some of Seroogy’s delicious varieties, I have trouble choosing a favorite and finally settle on the meltaways, one of their signature candies, which come in a variety of flavors and—yes—they do melt in your mouth.
Foodies will love Cook’s Corner in Green Bay, which bills itself as the nation’s largest kitchen store. You’ll find kitchen tools, gadgets, barware, cookware, gourmet foods, sauces—even in-store cooking classes. During our visit, we meet the Cooking Mom and learn how to make mulled apple cranberry cider.
Dinner that night is another cranberry-themed affair at the Black & Tan Grille, a fine dining establishment in Green Bay. From baked brie with cranberry-fig compote to beef tenderloin with cranberry demi-glace, I eat until I can’t eat any more. Yet somehow I make room for cranberry-champagne sorbet. One thing I’ve learned on this trip is that the cranberry is a versatile fruit and, secondly, that Wisconsin folks are very proud of their homegrown berries!
But there’s something else the good people of Wisconsin love even more than cranberries. What else but the Green Bay Packers? And here in the small city of Green Bay, this football team is a passion. We stop by Lambeau Field, home of the Packers, and pay respect to both the team and the cast of characters who have kept this franchise alive despite insurmountable odds. Everyone we meet is a die-hard Packers fan, and the love these folks have for their beloved football team is palpable.
That’s why Wisconsin is so charming. People here are passionate about what they do. Whether it’s the farmers who grow and harvest cranberries, the chefs who prepare food with loving care, and even the football fans who root for the hometown team, people here have a deep commitment to quality—and it shows!
For more information:
• Wisconsin: www.travelwisconsin.com
• Wisconsin Cranberry Growers: www.wiscran.org
• Tomah/Warrens: www.tomahwisconsin.com
• Three Bears Lodge: www.threebearslodgewarrens.com
• Cranberry Discovery Center: www.discovercranberries.com
• Burnstad’s European Restaurant: www.burnstadseuropeanrestaurant.com
• Wisconsin Rapids: www.visitwisrapids.com
• Hotel Mead: www.hotelmead.com
• Elkhart Lake: www.elkhartlake.com
• The Osthoff Resort: www.osthoff.com
• Lola’s on the Lake: www.lolasonthelake.com
• L’ecole de la Maison: www.cookingschoolatosthoff.com
• Aspira Spa: www.aspiraspa.com
• Green Bay: www.greenbay.com
• Cook’s Corner: www.cookscorner.com
• Lambeau Field: www.packers.com
• Seroogy’s: www.seroogys.com
• Black and Tan Grille: www.blackandtangrille.com