Wisconsin Dells: Beauty and Fun on a Budget

The Wisconsin Dells is 'The Waterpark Capital of the World,' but also a great destination for spa-goers and golfers.
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During these uncertain economic times, savvy travelers are downsizing their vacation plans and sticking closer to home. This bodes well for destinations like the Wisconsin Dells, a tiny tourist area long known to Midwesterners as a great, if kitschy, summertime escape.

The recent addition of several state-of-the-art theme parks and resorts has transformed this once-fading destination into "The Waterpark Capital of the World." There's plenty here for grown-up travelers, too, from spas to championship golf courses, making the Dells a worthy contender for that next great escape.

Dells 101

The Dells made national news in the spring of 2008 when heavy rains caused manmade Lake Delton to breach its shores and overflow into the Wisconsin River, taking several vacation homes with it. But resorts and attractions like the popular and long-running Tommy Bartlett Show continued without missing a beat, and repair and refilling of the lake are on target for the 2009 season.

The area known as the "Wisconsin Dells" encompasses the towns of Wisconsin Dells and Lake Delton, as well as some nearby smaller towns and state parks. The Dells are conveniently located within driving distance of Milwaukee, Chicago and the Twin Cities. The small-town setting means limited public transportation, so a car rental is a must if you're not driving directly.

The original downtown area is laid out along the Wisconsin River that gave the Dells region its name (from a Native American word describing the layered rock lining the river banks). Now known as the Dells River District, the downtown area reflects a bygone era of souvenir and fudge shops. But the addition of a new River Walk Trail and updated attractions and eateries are aimed at the influx of visitors to the area resorts, which are located primarily along the main highways both in and out of town.

Year-Round Family Fun

The Dells and "family-friendly" have been synonymous for more than a century, but summertime held court as not only high season but also pretty much the main season for a visit. However, the recent addition of several full-service resorts -- including Great Wolf Lodge, Wilderness Resort, Mt. Olympus and the Kalahari Resort -- allows families to visit any time of year.

With rustic decor and cozy accommodations ranging from standard rooms, suites, condos or even cabins, these resorts feature perks like indoor waterparks, craft rooms, arcades and interactive play areas. There's even a 15-screen, first-run movie theater and a new indoor amusement park at the Kalahari.

These year-round digs allow an escape from winter blahs without having to cough up airfare to a faraway, crowded tropical destination. For a summertime visit that brings kids closer to nature, there are also several campgrounds and cabins nestled among the area's many woodsy waterfront retreats.

Grown-Up Getaways

If pampering is what you're seeking, there are several spas ready to spoil you in the Wisconsin Dells. Most are located inside full-service resorts like Chula Vista's Spa del Sol (complete with outdoor adobe fireplace and adults-only "hot spring") or Rhapsody Resort & Spa, where you can receive lush, big-city spa treatments at smaller-town prices. Sundara Inn & Spa combines luxurious accommodations, four-star spa cuisine and decadent spa treatments. Even kid-centric resorts like Great Wolf Lodge and Kalahari Resort have first-class spa facilities, allowing parents a quick escape for a solo retreat.

Wine lovers will enjoy a scenic drive from the Dells to the Wollersheim Winery in nearby Prairie du Sac. The climate along this stretch of the Wisconsin River allows grape vines to flourish, and the setting is decidedly and delightfully European. Tours and tastings are offered daily year-round.

Golf is also serious business in the Dells, for golfers visiting during warmer months. Several area resorts are updating or adding prime golf real estate to their properties. The Wilderness Resort even offers a Golf Course Academy for those looking to improve their game. Afterward, students can test their new skills on the 18-hole course at the Wild Rock Golf Club.

Whether you're local to the Dells, smaller destinations like this revitalized region offer affordable alternatives to travelers and are definitely worth a serious look when stretching those travel dollars. Check the Wisconsin Dells Visitor & Convention Bureau Web site for details on lodging and activities any time of year. (Don't forget to check the Web sites of individual resorts and attractions for online specials.)