Need Some Fudge? Visit The Wisconsin Dells, The Midwest’s Most Delightfully Tacky Resort Town

You don’t have to leave the Midwest to catch a glimpse of the Roman Coliseum, the White House, the Kalahari Desert and the fabled windmills of Mykonos. Nope, all you have to do is take a road trip to the Wisconsin Dells, one of America’s delightfully tacky resort towns, where you can travel the world without venturing very far off the Wisconsin Dells Parkway.

I’ve lived in Chicago for years but have somehow managed to avoid visiting the Dells, the region’s quintessential summer weekend getaway place for families, until I finally experienced the place in all its tawdry glory while on a camping trip at nearby Mirror Lake State Park. Sophisticated city types mock places like the Dells, which is chock-a-block with mini-golf, wax museums, water parks and every conceivable type of tourist trap imaginable. But I have a soft spot for tourist traps. You could even call it a morbid fascination.

So I found myself cruising the Dells honkytonk strip on Memorial Day, notebook out, jotting away like a visitor from another planet. I wanted to take in a lumberjack show, while eating a “lumberjack meal” (whatever the hell that is) at a place called Paul Bunyan, but alas, I was told the lumberjacks don’t report for duty until the weather gets warmer. (Aren’t lumberjacks supposed to be tough?) How about a BigFoot zipline tour? Not for $89, I thought. The Polynesian Water Park, the Timbavati Wildlife Park, a 50-foot-tall Trojan Horse roller coaster and the “Top Secret” Upside Down White House all peaked my interest but I was too cheap to pay to bring my family of four into these places. (And why are there directions on the White House website for a place that is supposed to be “top secret?”)

I read in the local newspaper that tourists spend more than $1 billion dollars a year on these and other Dells attractions. But based upon my informal calculations, made while walking down Broadway, arguably the tackiest street in the Midwest’s tackiest town, I’d estimate that tourists spend at least two or three billion on fudge in the Dells each year, maybe more. Perhaps a local person can confirm this for me, and dear readers, please feel free to weigh in on this phenomenon in the comments section, but are there really five – count ‘em five – fudge shops on one side of this street? I don’t know if I was hallucinating, but in between lengthy, illegible missives on Captain Brady’s Showboat Saloon and a Feed-And-Pet-the Deer- joint, there is this comment in my notebook: “Four – no five fudge shops! On one block!”

I don’t know if any academics have ever delved into the phenomenon in a dissertation or published paper, but I’d like to know what came first – the fudge or the tourists? Do people want fudge while they’re on vacation or do they simply indulge in the stuff because it’s there? No clue, but if you want fudge, by all means, consider the Wisconsin Dells for your next holiday. You’ll be spoiled for choice.

Aside from the fudge, I’ve noticed that tourists also like torture museums, and the Dells has a sorry example of one of these places as well. I’ve seen torture museums in all kinds of touristy places all around the world. Most of them are obvious tourist traps, but when found in places where torture was once widely practiced, they at least make some sense. Now I’m not an expert on the criminal justice system of Wisconsin, but as far as I know, torture has never been a regular part of the Wisconsin Dells experience. That is, unless you consider sitting through hokey magic shows, “duck tours” or the Wisconsin Opry Dinner Show torture, which some might.

I took my kids to Circus World in nearby Baraboo, more of an old-school indulgence than the contrived, new fangled attractions of the Dells, but didn’t spend a dime on any of the tourist traps in the town. Next time, I plan to visit the Lost Mayan Temple, ride the Trojan Horse roller coaster, take in the lumberjack show and have some fudge, preferably while dressed like a gladiator inside the Roman Coliseum. If anyone knows which of the Broadway fudge shops is the best, please drop me a line.

Lake Bled: A Tourist Trap In Slovenia You Really Must See

Lake Bled
Sean McLachlan

If you don’t already know that Lake Bled is the most popular tourist attraction in Slovenia you’ll know it the moment you arrive. There’s a casino. There’s a Shamrock Irish Pub. There’s even one of those tourist buses made up to look like a choo-choo train. It’s horrible.

But look out across the emerald-green water sparkling in the sunshine and all that disappears. Instead, you see a storybook landscape – a lush little island with a church spire peeking out over the greenery, snow-covered Alps beyond and, on one shore, a steep cliff atop which looms a formidable castle. It’s like something from Wagner.

The best way to see Lake Bled is to take a slow stroll around it. A path makes the entire 3.7-mile circuit. Most of the hotels and nearly all the businesses are clustered into one small town, so you soon leave the noise and people behind. Much of the walk is shaded and you can admire the lake from all angles. At one point there’s a sign for Osojnica hill. A moderately challenging 15-minute climb will reward you with fine views of the island and its church.

Most visitors head up to Bled Castle, one of the most impressive of Slovenia’s many castles. It’s a 16th-century fortress/manor house built on 11th-century foundations. While picturesque from afar, I’d recommend not visiting it because you’ll spoil the illusion. As soon as you enter the front gate someone shouts, “Smile!” and snaps your photo. When you leave they’ll offer you an image of yourself looking slightly surprised and confused for only €6.50 ($8.60).

%Slideshow-599%Once you make it past the photographer, you can visit an old-style print shop, where you can buy handmade prints; or you can visit the wine cellar, where you can buy wine; or you can visit the smithy with its fake forge and array of metalwork for sale. The only redeeming spots are the fine little castle church with its 16th-century frescoes and the views over Lake Bled. Since you can get just as good views from Osojnica hill for free, there’s really not much need to come here.

While Bled Island and its Church of the Assumption are equally touristy, they feel slightly less spoiled than the castle. At least people aren’t trying to sell you something all the time. The approach is nicer too – instead of slogging up a steep hill, you’re rowed across the lake on a gondola. When I went to the lakeside to catch a boat, a tour bus pulled up and disgorged a huge crowd of South Koreans, mostly women in their 50s with a couple of camera-toting husbands in tow.

We all piled into three gondolas and set out. The women in one of the boats started singing and their voices carried nicely over the water. I shared the stern of my boat with two ladies. Everyone thought this was funny for some reason and started snapping photos of us. The lone Korean man in our boat stood up to take a shot and, figuring I’d give him something to talk about back home, I put my arms around the two women. They started giggling. For them, at least, I’m still a young man.

The photographer gave me a wide grin and took our photograph. After he sat down one of the women turned to me and said, “That’s my husband.”

Oops.

The man must have overheard because he laughed. Then he pointed at me and said, “You kimchi.”

I swear to God that’s what he said. “You kimchi.”

Maybe Gadling’s resident Korea expert can shed some light on this?

Once we got off the boat, the oarsman grumpily announced that we only had half an hour. That’s plenty of time because the island is tiny. A quiet little path goes around the edge. It took me barely five minutes to make the circuit even though I kept stopping to take pictures. Then I rejoined my temporary travel companions in the church.

The church has some lovely 14th-century frescoes but that’s not why people come here. They come here to ring the bell. There’s some local legend about how it gives you luck for some reason or other. I didn’t bother to write it down since it was probably made up for tourists anyway. Still, I wasn’t about to pass up the chance for some good luck and I got in line with the rest. A sign on the floor gave strict instructions not to swing from the bell rope. Most of the women did anyway.

That bell rang and rang. Since a steady stream of visitors passes through the island, you can hear that bell ringing from early in the morning until sunset. It hardly ever seems to stop. Lake Bled has a lot of luck to give.

The women thought I was very strong because I could ring the bell without swinging from it. Thanks, ladies! Maybe that was the luck the bell had for me – the admiration of a crowd of middle-aged South Koreans. It’s not much, but how much magic do you expect from a tourist trap?

Despite all this nonsense, is Lake Bled still worth a visit? Oh yes. It is simply beautiful. Even in a steady downpour it had a majestic quality to it, and when the clouds broke it became one of the most beautiful spots I’ve seen in 25 years and 34 countries of travel. I would suggest visiting Lake Bled but actually staying at the less-visited but equally beautiful Lake Bohinj in Triglav National Park. More on that in the next post.

Check out the rest of my series, “Slovenia: Hikes, History and Horseburgers.”

Coming up next: Hiking in Triglav National Park!

Four Corners: A Delightfully Confusing Tourist Trap

four cornersOf course I knew that Four Corners – the spot where Colorado, New Mexico, Utah and Arizona meet – would be a tourist trap. But on a recent road trip from Durango to Monument Valley, Utah, I passed just five miles away from this geographically auspicious place and found that I couldn’t resist the temptation to stop and see the only spot in America where four states meet.

The Navajo Nation operates the site, which sits inside their vast reservation, which is about as large as West Virginia. After paying the modest $3 fee in a booth, I noticed a sign warning tourists against spreading ashes at the site, as the Navajo believe that cremation is a “malicious desecration.”

I parked and made my way towards the monument, expecting to be able to touch an actual piece of dirt where the four states meet. But low and behold, the site, which is set amidst some wild, beautiful southwestern scenery, is an ugly monstrosity.


navajo nationRather than allow an untrammeled view of nature surrounding the site, there are four hideous concrete structures with stalls for vendors – all but two of them were unoccupied when I was there – and the entire site has been paved over, so there’s nothing but concrete. It was a cold Saturday morning and there was just one family at the site aside from myself.

One of just two Native American vendors who turned up that morning told me that in the high season people sometimes have to wait in line an hour or more to get their photo taken at the spot where the four states meet. I couldn’t help but wonder which state would have jurisdiction if an enraged tourist decided to kill someone who was taking too long posing for photos on the spot.

After walking across the spot, I noticed that my car seemed to be parked in New Mexico, which baffled me. I’d be driving in Colorado and hadn’t passed any sign indicating that I’d crossed into New Mexico. I looked back at the spot and tried to rap my head around the fact that I could look in four directions and see four states. And for the first time in my life I was thoroughly confused about what state I was actually in.

four corners“Excuse me,” I said to the Navajo woman operating the booth at the entrance to the site. “But are we in New Mexico right now?”

“This is New Mexico,” she said. “But down by the river, it’s Colorado, off to the right, it’s Arizona, and over there it’s Utah.”

“But there was no sign to indicate that I had left Colorado and entered New Mexico,” I said.

“A drunk driver smashed into the sign,” she explained. “So it’s gone now.”

I crossed back into Colorado and then into Utah, crossing my 8th state border within ten minutes. Or was it 7? I still have no idea.

[Photo/video credit: Dave Seminara]

A Sunset Mosh Pit In Santorini

santorini oia sunset mosh pitTourism is supposed to be way down in Greece this year, right? Then perhaps someone can explain why there were approximately 35,000 tourists jostling and clawing for space to capture the perfect shot of the setting sun last night in Oia, on the island of Santorini?

I knew before we arrived that Santorini is the most popular (and expensive) of the 200 or so inhabited Greek islands, and I visited the place once before, 15 years ago. But I wasn’t prepared for the tsunami of tourists that descended on the dramatically situated blue and white town that has 813 jewelry shops but just one supermarket and school.

Oia is renowned for being a beautiful place to watch the sunset, and so scores of tour operators bus package tourists into the town right around sunset to capture some memories. As we made our way through the town, I could hardly believe my eyes when I saw at least 4-5 vantage points, each clogged beyond belief with a few hundred people jostling and competing for the perfect spot to photograph the sunset.Watching the setting sun is supposed to be a tranquil, romantic, intimate thing to do while on vacation. But we found ourselves in a veritable mosh-pit of mostly Asian tourists, who were intent not only on photographing the setting sun, but also on photographing themselves in front of the setting sun in various glamour poses.

%Gallery-158777%

We saw young men and women climbing up and over walls and fences, onto private property, to try to stake out higher ground, despite the risks. We witnessed two verbal fights that appeared as though they were going to degenerate into physical ones, as people argued over who had the right to stand on what spot. And I saw more than a few people physically push others aside in order to get the shot they wanted.

To say that it was a circus would be a huge understatement. I thought that the first vantage point we saw (in the video above) was crowded but soon realized it was by far the least crowded of the bunch. We’ve spent the previous month in the much lower-key islands of Kos, Patmos, Samos and Syros, where we encountered no busloads of Asian tourists, and only a couple of Americans, all cruise ship passengers.

mexican restaurant in santorini senor zorbasSo when we arrived in Santorini for just a short two-day stay en route to Crete, we felt a bit like country bumpkins arriving in the big city, as an armada of tour buses left the port, all in a long line, creating a ferocious traffic jam leading up into Fira, which reminds me a bit of the tourist sprawl in Gatlinburg, Tennessee, the gateway to Smokey Mountain National Park.

As we waited for the sun to set, I couldn’t help but notice that everyone had a camera, myself included. I wondered what the hell we were all doing there, in the same spot, and concluded that we weren’t there to experience the beauty of a sunset. No, we just wanted a photo of the damned thing.

oia santorini sunsetBut I was curious to see this magical sunset. I assumed that the hordes of people were there for a good reason and was expecting to see the most glorious setting sun of my lifetime. Oddly enough though, it was just an ordinary sunset. Beautiful, sure, but no different or more beautiful than one I’d experienced in a lovely and completely empty restaurant with a great view in the town of San Michalis in Syros just days before.

The crowd in Oia broke out in applause when the sun set behind the horizon, but I couldn’t help but feel like we’d all just been party to something very, very strange. I was initially put off by the pushy crowds of camera toting tourists but then I became intensely interested in the bizarre spectacle.

We had traveled a long way to see a glorious sunset, but it felt like being stuck on a crowded commuter train in Tokyo at rush hour. But tourism is way down in Greece by all accounts. So just imagine how crowded this same place must have been last year or the year before that! And it’s only June, wait till July and August when the crowds really form, locals said. Greece needs the money and I hope the place gets even more crowded. That is, as soon as I leave.

We’ve had the luxury of time and have been fortunate to be able to explore the Greek islands at a leisurely clip on this and other trips, but I couldn’t help but feel sorry for anyone in the crowd who was about to get on a bus never to see another sunset in the Greek islands. I wanted to tell them about the sunset we saw in Syros, maybe give them the address of the restaurant. But why? So that place could become the next Oia?

There’s a lot of natural beauty in Santorini and if you get out past the most well known places, you can find serenity, even in this intensely touristic island. The geography of the place is undeniably unique. I know people who love Santorini and have the ability to enjoy the beauty and ignore the rampaging sorority girls on quad bikes, tacky tourist traps and hordes of package tourists.

I’ve always sought to avoid intensely touristy places like Santorini, but for one night, I was there with the masses, clicking away. The funny thing is, I think most of us were so busy taking pictures we missed the actual sunset. Maybe it was better than we realized.

(Photos and videos by Dave Seminara)

Instead Of Looking At A Map, Why Not Listen To One?

listen here How many times when traveling have you looked a map and wondered what a certain area of a city was really like. I don’t mean where the nearest bakery was or how many square-feet a certain park held, but the actual ambiance of a place.

Listen Here, a product developed by University of Dundee student Nicola Hume, uses microphones and audio feed to help you get a feeling of what a certain section of a city feels like before you go. The goal is to get people away from tourist traps to experience the real culture. Listen Here uses a concept map, allowing travelers to use a stethoscope-like device to listen to what certain parts of a city sound like. Points of interest are decided by locals, who place microphones in their favorite areas, secured by bike locks.

“Using sound alone to represent environments creates a sense of mystery and encourages exploration,” Hume explains on the Listen Here website.

Of course, the product has a few flaws. The most major concern, as Natt Garun of Digital Trends points out, is the potential problem of eavesdropping. This could make Listen Here illegal in certain American states. Because of certain concerns, the potential launch of the product is still being sorted.

Is Listen Here something you would use on your travels?