When I was young, all our family vacations took place at my grandmother’s cottage in Waterford, Wisconsin. It was a true cottage: a rustic summer-only place furnished with leftovers and multiple beds scattered across three unfinished rooms upstairs and a makeshilft sleeping porch downstairs. Typically, more than a few of my aunts and uncles and their families were there when we were, so beds were shared, sofas and chairs became makeship sleepers, and the one bathroom got a lot of use. When we wanted to watch TV, we usually went up the hill to my Aunt Betty’s house, where someone was always up–day or night.
I share this because the only time I ever went somewhere other than the cottage was on my 8th grade patrols trip to the Wisconsin Dells. It was an overnight, and I shared a real motel room with three friends. I remember it raining a lot on that trip, but I didn’t care because it was so amazing to be away from home, in a motel, on a vacation. I don’t recall going to the Dells ever before or again–even for a daytrip.
So, when we were planning our roadtrip, I read up on the Dells, which in the 40 years since I went has become the water park capital of the world. It was clear we HAD to go!
Our hotel was a fairly significant step up from the roadside motel I stayed at when I was 13. Glacier Canyon Lodge is part of a massive, multi-hotel development that is big enough to be a sovereign nation. I comes complete with 8 water parks of varying sizes, several of them indoor; several different arcades; zip lines and a ropes course; four mini-golf courses; two go-kart tracks; laser tag; and more. We stayed at GCL because it had the biggest water park and the lowest rates. We were not disappointed!
Because it’s all contained, the kids could roam free …
while we sat in these cushy patio chairs–seriously, check out the depth of the padding on these babies!
We set up homebase and had occasional visitors.
Note the increasingly blue skies behind us. The day started cloudy but grew to be just beautiful.
Along with our check-in materials, we got a bunch of coupons, including one for a poolside pizza delivery. You don’t need to tell us twice: we can eat Wisconsin-cheese covered pizza in our cushy chairs under an increasingly sunny sky? Yep, sign us up!
After lunch, I leaned back in my chair, and this is the last view I can remember seeing. I was out, happily drowsing away the afternoon. I woke up in time for a conference call, and while I took that, Ned and the kids went looking for the ropes course.
I found them acting out their Wallenda fantasies high above the arcade. When we were kids, this was the stuff of fantasy. Our playgrounds were swingsets and–in my case–old swingsets turned into jungle gyms that led to tetanus shots. Super cool!
One thing I wanted to make sure we did was an Original Wisconsin Duck Tour. These have been running for 70 years, pretty much unchanged.
Much about the Duck Tours can be surmised by the 900 items of food and drink available for consumption on the one hour tour. Wisconsin: eating is not just allowed, it’s encouraged. When’s the last time you saw a box of Chuckles?
Unfortunately, our tour guide, TJ, left much to be desired … and said. Things we learned on our tour: TJ’s a recent graduate of the University of Wisconsin; he majored in PE; he hasn’t found a teaching job yet; he’s been a tour guide for five years; he’s a Packers fan; he’s a Dells native; he knows very little about the Dells. When TJ invited questions about anything on the tour, Ned asked a follow-up to TJ’s statement that Potsdam sandstone was found only in Germany and the Dells: Why is that? TJ’s response: I think that goes all the way back to Pangea and what-not. That’s as much science as I know. (On, Wisconsin!)
The Dells themselves did not disappoint! A quick drive through the woods …
took us to the Wisconsin River, where the sandstone often glowed in the warm light of the slowly setting sun. At one point, we even saw a bald eagle!
When we got back on land, the sun made the green of the leaves brighter and everything tookk on a Jurassic World vibe.
We even saw actual ducks from our duck!
When I shared our Wisconsin plans with my mom, she mentioned that when she and my dad honeymooned in the Dells 55 years ago, they went to a supper club called Ishnala. Because they arrived before July 4, most places weren’t even open, which took them by surprise. Ishnala was open, and the people there took pity on them: two honeymooners with very little to their name and even fewer places to spend it. She wondered whatever happened to it. Turns out it’s still open and in its 60th season (though under new ownership). We knew we had to go.
Driving up for dinner, we found the same entrance that would have greeted my parents over a half a century ago:
Ishnala’s grounds are wonderful: it’s located in a park on Mirror Lake. We had about 30 minutes to explore before our table was ready, and we could do so accompanied by a Rat Pack soundtrack courtesy of outdoor speakers all around the club.
Rough stone steps lead down from Ishnala to Mirror Lake, and we had to follow them.
Because, seriously, look at this view!
The park is filled with the same sandstone we saw on the Ducks tour.
And, winding paths through tall pines.
Inside, Ishnala really leaned into its woodsy motif: animal trophys, period decorations, and log walls surrounded us.
Beats, raccoons, badgers (natch), wolves, even squirrels.
When we got to our table, here was our view. Not bad! My mom recalled a tree growing up through the restaurant. It’s easy to see why:
I made sure we ordered the Wisconsin appetizer: fried cheese curds. They called me mad, but the cheese disappeared. By the way, Ishnala serves its meals in the classic supper club tradition: over the top. We stared with breadsticks and crackers with homemade cheese dip, moved on to salads with homemade rolls and cinnamon pecan rolls, then this appetizer, then our main courses–each with massive sides of potatoes in various preparations.
As we ate our ways into a food coma, we talked and talked and talked–about cities we had visited and–because we’re us–about the nature of art. What makes art, art? What happens when avant garde art becomes mainstream? Why is Charles Ray different from Marcel Duchamp? Is Penn an artist? (3 yeses, 1 no–from Penn)
Then, about a million calories later, we were waddled out of the 1960s back to 2015, stopping to capture a photo of our delicious walk into the past before it was lost.