Budget Summer vacation from Chicago – the Wisconsin Dells

You can’t really talk about budget destinations from Chicago, without mentioning the Wisconsin Dells. The Dells are a 3 hour drive from Chicagoland. The area itself is best described as “middle of nowhere”, about 40 miles north of Madison.

The Dells call themselves “the waterpark capital of the world”, and rightfully so – most of their hotels have built themselves around their own massive waterparks, and even the smallest motel will have at least one indoor pool.

There are two times of year in the Dells – Summer and “the rest”. Sure, you can visit the Dells in the period from November-April, but most attractions will be closed. That said, the downtime is when you’ll find the best deals at resorts in the Dells, and since the weather will suck anyway, it’s a great time to stay indoors and enjoy the amenities offered on-site. You’ll pretty much have to, because almost everything else will be closed.

Memorial day is when the Dells really comes to life – all the major attractions will be open, and most resorts will have their outdoor water attractions ready for the nice weather.Where to stay

Finding somewhere to stay in the Dells is probably the easiest part of your trip – the Dells are home to loads of different types of motels, hotels, resorts and megaresorts. Your choice will probably come down to budget and availability.

The large waterparks have 100’s of rooms, but even they fill up quickly in the Summer. A great resort to consider if you have younger kids, is the Great Wolf Lodge. The lodge has all the amenities of the larger resorts, but in a smaller and more friendly environment. That said, older kids will probably need some more excitement, so be sure to check out the Kalahari resort or the Wilderness resort. A great place to find hotels in the Dells is the website of the Wisconsin Dells visitor bureau.

If the upcoming weather forecast shows bad stuff on the way, you’ll appreciate being able to stay indoors in the larger waterparks. Just remember that some of the resorts do not allow non-residents to use their waterparks, so if you find yourself stuck at a hotel with a single pool and a small slide, you’ll need to go elsewhere for your fun.

Not everything in the Dells is targeted towards family fun – the Sundara Spa and Resort is an adults only spa with very upscale rooms and secluded villas. Of course, the resort offers full spa services, and the entire facility is located far away from the noise and distractions from the rest of the Dells. A perfect place for couples to relax.

Things to do in the Dells

If there is one thing the Dells does not have a shortage of, it’s things to do. In fact, during the Summer, there are so many attractions, that you can easily plan a 5 day trip and never be bored. Here are a couple of hightlights:

The Original Dells Ducks / Dells Army Ducks

The Dells is home to 2 different Ducks companies – The Original Wisconsin Ducks and the Dells Army Ducks. Both offer land/water rides in retired Army DUKW vehicles.

Rides on the Dells Army Ducks are not cheap – $23 for adults and $13 for kids, but if you order online, you’ll save $2 per ticket. Rides on the Original Wisconsin Ducks are $23 for adults, and $11.50 for kids.

The Ducks tour itself is fantastic – you’ll spend about half of the one hour ride in the forest, and the rest going up the river. The forest ride is pretty bumpy. The highlight of one of my rides was getting stuck on a sandbank, thankfully the companies have dedicated ducks to relieve a “stuck duck”.

Before spending money on the ducks – be sure to check out the other water rides offered in the Dells, for the same amount of money, you can take a jet boat ride or a slower river boat ride. The river boat tour is perfect for those with younger kids, or people who just want to relax.

Pirates Cove adventure golf and family fun center

Mini golf doesn’t get any bigger than the original Pirates Cove – this attraction has the largest mini golf park in North America, offering 5 different 18 hole courses on the side of a hill. At just $7.75 per round, it is very nicely priced. Mini golf fanatics can even buy a ticket for all 5 courses for $23. Kids under 5 play for free.

The family fun center offers good clean fun for families with kids – a bouncing pillow, pedal carts, jumping basketball and a sand/sun play area can all be enjoyed for just $6, or just $12.55 as a combination ticket with a round of mini golf.

Downtown Dells

The Downtown Dells area is your typical tourist village main street. It’s where you’ll find numerous t-shirt stores, chain restaurants and of course candy stores.

Sadly, many of the stores have recently closed, most likely more victims of the poor economy. That said, there is still plenty to do, as long as you resist the urge to buy tacky t-shirts or other stuff you’ll regret once you get back home.

Noah’s Ark waterpark

Noah’s Ark is one of several stand alone water parks in the Dells. The park offer over 40 different wet and dry attractions, including the longest water slide in the country. The park has been rated one of the best waterparks in the country by the Travel Channel for the past 8 years.

Admission to Noah’s Ark is $34.99 for adults and kids are 20% off. Children under 2 are free. If you need a second day, you can add that for $17.50.

Mount Olympus water & theme park

With almost 50 attractions, Mount Olympus is another “must visit” in the Dells. The park is split between a massive outdoor pool area and a large indoor pool/theme park. The park is hard to miss, thanks to its massive wooden coaster.

Admission to Mount Olympus is $39.99 for an indoor/outdoor combo ticket.

Circus World

Circus World is just up the road from the Dells, in Baraboo. This attrac
tion is part museum and part fully operational circus. During the Summer months, you’ll find circus performances all day long. Younger kids can create their own performance in the original Ringling Bros. Elephant House. Of course, no visit to the Circus would be complete without popcorn, cotton candy and hot dogs from the Cookhouse Grill.

Admission to Circus World is $14.95 for adults, and $7.95 for kids 5-11.

Other things to see and do

Here are some of the other things to do when in the Dells – Just up the road from the Dells is the massive Ho-Chunk Casino, a 24 hour casino with over 2400 slot machines and tables. The casino even features daycare for parents who want to drop the little ones off for a couple of hours, while they lose their cash.

The Tommy Bartlett show has been entertaining Dells visitors since the early 70’s, and it was Tommy Bartlett himself who helped make the Wisconsin Dells the tourist destination it is today. Shows are held twice daily in the summer. Admission is $16 for adults and $9 for kids.

Tommy Bartlett also operates the “Exploratory“, which is part science museum, part kids museum. Sadly, the museum is quite outdated, and older kids will most likely not be too impressed with it. That said – the Exploratory is the only place in the world where you’ll find a real full size MIR space station, purchased by the facility from the Russians. Admission to the Exploratory is $12 for adults and $9 for kids.

Shopaholics will love the Tanger Outlet center located in the same area as most of the big resorts. The outlet is home to a Disney store, a Coach Factory Outlet, and even a Build-a-bear.

And finally, if the weather does not cooperate, check out the massive indoor amusement park at Knuckleheads or the recently opened theme park at the Kalahari resort.

If you really want to turn your trip into a road trip, then take advantage of some of the attractions on the way to the Wisconsin Dells – I recommend heading West when you reach Madison for a trip to the Cave of the Mounds and the House on the Rock. That same area is also home to Taliesen, the Frank Lloyd Wright landmark.

Here is a quick link to a map of the area:

Budget summer vacation from Chicago – road trip to Santa Claus, Indiana

Chicago is in the unfortunate position of being surrounded by a whole lot of nothing. It doesn’t matter which direction you are heading, you’ll need to drive several hours till you finally reach something that isn’t in the Chicagoland metro area, or anything remotely fun (Sorry Milwaukee, but I don’t consider you to be that cool a destination, unless it is during Summerfest).

If you are looking for a fun weekend away (way, way away) from it all, but still within driving range, head down south to Santa Claus Indiana. This quaint little village is home to Holiday World & Splashin’ Safari.
Holiday World is where you’ll find 4 roller coasters, including the #1 rated wooden coaster in the world, but you’ll also find loads of family friendly rides, plus some just for toddlers.

In addition to the rides, Holiday World also offers one of the largest water parks in the Midwest with 16 different rides and attractions.

Admission to Holiday World is $40 for adults and $30 for guests under 54 inches. The admission price includes free soft drinks all day long.

When you are in Santa Claus, the most appropriate place to stay is of course at Santa’s Lodge.

This Christmas themed hotel is decorated for the Holiday season year-round. Rooms start at just $79.95 a night.

The hotel offers several indoor and outdoor pools, 2 restaurants and a mini-golf course.

Planning this trip wouldn’t be fun if you didn’t take advantage of some of the great other attractions on the way to Santa Claus. Your halfway point is Indianapolis, home to the largest children’s museum in the world.

Admission to the museum is $14.50 for adults and $9.50 for kids. Be sure to leave enough time in your schedule to see this place, as your kids will need several hours to visit all the exhibits.

With a little bit of luck, younger kids will be so tired from their visit, that they’ll sleep for the rest of your drive.

If you don’t have any kids (or you left them back home), then you can schedule your halfway stop at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway in (where else) Speedway, IN. Just be sure to stay far, far away from this area on race days. The Speedway is home to a museum and “behind the scenes tour”, but only on select dates, so be sure to check their schedule.

Finally, adults will be happy to know that the last part of the drive to Santa Claus passes through Louisville, home to the recently renovated Louisville Slugger museum. For $10 ($5 for kids), you get to see where this world famous baseball bat it made, plus you’ll be able to visit their factory outlet for some discounted Slugger gear.

Baseball not your thing? The Louisville Museum Row has 8 other attractions all within walking distance.

It would be considered a crime to drive to Louisville without stopping for some authentic Kentucky barbecue! A lineup of some of the best meat in the city can be found here.

So, there you have it – an affordable roadtrip from Chicago to Santa Claus, with 2 awesome stops on the way. Total distance from Chicago to Santa Claus is 360 miles.

Be sure to check out more budget summer vacations here!

Budget summer vacations from Detroit: Ann Arbor

Forty miles west of downtown Detroit and twenty minutes from its airport, Ann Arbor is the complete antithesis of it’s next door neighbor. Unemployment and crime are among the lowest in the state, property values are high, education is top notch and the city is alive with innovation and activity.

Sure, The D has it’s virtues (as Mr. Lansel from the Post gently reminds us,) but there is a quaintness about Ann Arbor that’s hard to find in a large city: A two-lane downtown Main Street bustling with boutique shops, restaurants, bars and entertainment. Lush green trees that arch over sleepy neighborhood streets. Rolling parks, a top notch university and a summer festival unrivaled in the state.

Spending time wandering through the Kerrytown Farmer’s market then bouncing among the locals you being to wonder: “Am I really in Michigan?” Ah, but you are. A small blue pocket in an oft red state, Ann Arbor defies many of the stereotypes cast onto Michigan and the Midwest. Stick around and we’ll tell you what to see

The Sights

Home to the University of Michigan, a large part of downtown tree city is devoted to campus, where a leisurely stroll through The Diag will introduce you to many of the architectural hits, including the voluminous Graduate Library and recently remodeled (and free of charge) art museum. Stop by on the first Saturday of April to see Hash Bash, the annual celebration that brings thousands of hippies and revelers out to celebrate their love of weed under the towering, silent Oak trees.

At ether end of The Diag, nose through campus boutiques and restaurants, remembering to pass through the gorgeous Law School (above) before getting a jug of the best sangria in town at Dominicks.

The Big House, Michigan’s enormous football stadium is just south of the Law School, and on most days is open for the public.

Back downtown, you can walk west down Liberty Street and see the world’s first Border’s Book Store on your way past the Michigan and State theaters. During the Ann Arbor Art Fair every July, these streets fill up with hundreds of artists and vendor stalls in one of the largest art fairs in the country.

On Main Street, a host of boutiques including Peaceable Kingdom and the ever popular Moosejaw should keep you busy shopping for the entire afternoon while Kerrytown, a short walk north, hosts a variety of eclectic shops, restaurants and even a local butcher.

If you’ve still got time left in your day, walk North on Main Street to Argo Pond, where you can cross the dam and rent canoes and float down the Huron River past the University of Michigan hospital and sport fields.

The Food

There are far too many fantastic places to eat in Ann Arbor to make a comprehensive list, so we’ll give you the best of the best. For dinner, Bella Ciao is a cozy, privately owned restaurant serving outstanding Italian food, while Ryan and the team at Logan serve modern Americana. On the cheaper end, Fleetwood Diner is open all night while Krazy Jim’s Blimpy Burger fires up the legendary burgers recently filmed on the Food Network.

If you’re not too full from dinner, stop by Bab’s Underground Lounge, where Giancarlo will pour you a stiff vodka tonic, Babs will scowl at you from behind the register and you can play a few rounds of pool on their plush, red tables. Have a few extra drinks and stop in the photo booth on your way out.

Where to Stay

You can stay right on campus and walk everywhere by booking a room at either the Bell Tower Hotel or The Inn at the Michigan League. If that’s to expensive for you taste, try booking a room at the Holiday Inn on North Campus to save a few bucks. Prices range from $200 at the high end to $100 at the Holiday Inn.

Finally, remember that Ann Arbor isn’t the metropolis that Chicago or San Francisco is — you can cover the entire city in two days or even one if you try. The key is to enjoy the setting, soak in the collegiate atmosphere, shop and eat well. If you stick to those standards you’ll have a great time.

Check out more budget summer vacations here!

Budget Vacations from Seattle: Puget Sound and San Juan Islands

A short boat ride from Seattle but worlds away in pace and atmosphere, the Puget Sound and San Juan islands appeal to bikers, kayakers, artists, and those simply seeking a romantic long weekend. Two-lane roads wind through cedar rain forests and farmers’ fields, and much of the islands has a decidedly rural feel. An abundance of state parks means there’s plenty of picnicking and camping options for the budget-oriented.

A handful of larger islands are visitor favorites: Whidbey, Bainbridge, Orcas, San Juan, and Lopez islands are all popular with tourists, and a couple have bustling towns to add energy to the mix. Several, particularly the islands closest to Seattle, make for great day trips.The Sights

A large part of island fun is getting there on a Washington State Ferry. The major islands listed above have regular ferry service, and the north end of Whidbey Island is also accessible by road.

On San Juan Island, Friday Harbor is a busy summertime destination, with a picturesque harbor crammed with sailboats, and a walkable town filled with art galleries and pretty views. 2009 is Friday Harbor’s centennial, so celebrations will abound this summer. Take a self-guided walking tour (print out a guide here) for an inexpensive historical tour.

To reach San Juan Island by ferry, you’ll need to drive about 90 minutes north of Seattle to Anacortes. From there, it’s a one-hour ferry ride to the island.

Whidbey Island, one of the archipelago’s largest, holds the rushing waters of Deception Pass at its northern tip. The dramatic Deception Pass Bridge links the island to the mainland via Pass Island, a small rocky outcropping. Here, swift tides make the rushing water appear deceiving like a river, which is what gave the pass its name. There are sidewalks on the bridge, so be sure to park your car and take some photos. Nearby, Deception Pass State Park has campsites, a lake with a swimming area, and a beach filled with driftwood.

Orcas Island is the largest of the San Juan cluster, and is arguably the archipelago’s artsiest. A driving or biking tour is the best way to see the island and its artisan’s galleries. Mt. Constitution perches at one end, and it take around 15 minutes to drive to the summit (it takes considerably longer to bike to the top…). Lake Moran State Park (of which Mt. Constitution is a part of) attracts campers and other recreationists; paddle-boating in Lake Moran is a fun, splashy family activity.

What to Eat

Dining options run from rustic to five-star. However, the islands’ agricultural communities support several farmers’ markets, and these are the best places to eat your veggies. If you’re on a budget, consider an al fresco meal put together from farmers’ market purchases and artisan bread from a local bakery (on Whidbey, try Nibbles Specialty Bakery, and on Orcas stop by Roses Bakery & Cafe). Make sure your food is marked with the ‘Island Certified Local’ logo.

Where to Stay

Sleeping on the islands is all about bed & breakfasts. In general, the best place to search for accommodation is on the various islands’ bed & breakfast associations’ websites. Click here for the San Juan islands site, and here for Puget Sound.

Camping is your best budget option, and there are plenty of options. Just don’t forget your rain fly.