If a weekend in Vail, Colo., isn't in the cards, consider central Wisconsin, where 700-foot Granite Peak offers plenty of steep-grade thrills close to home.

Granted, you're more likely to encounter Green Bay Packer jackets, ice fishing shacks and cheese curds than designer sheepskin coats, chic lodging and fondue, but Wausau is only about a three-hour drive from Minneapolis and far more affordable than the Rockies. Plus, the epicenter of America's Dairyland features some surprising cultural amenities, including the historic Grand Theater and world-class nature art at the Leigh Yawkey Woodson Art Museum.

Why go now

Ski season is underway at Granite Peak (1-715-845-2846; www.skigranitepeak.com), where a sophisticated snowmaking system picks up the slack when Mother Nature isn't delivering.

Downtown revival

Downtown Wausau is in the midst of a mini-Renaissance and along 3rd Street you'll find a brave lineup of charming boutiques, coffee shops and restaurants resurrecting the city's core. Enjoy lunch amid locals at the classic Mint Cafe before stopping at family-owned Shepherd & Shaller Sporting Goods on nearby Scott Street to rent skates for the city-center rink across the street.

Hitting the slopes or trails

According to local legend, Rib Mountain is the resting place of Paul Bunyan, the mythical lumberjack whose woodsy style informs local fashion. It's here you'll find Granite Peak and its 74 ski runs, perfect for snowboarders and skiers of all levels. On the other side of the mountain, Nine Mile Forest caters to cross-country skiers, skaters and snowshoers with 20 miles of well-groomed trails, many lit at night. Add to that 110 miles of snowmobiling trails in the area and there's no excuse to stay indoors.


Schuss straight from the slopes into Granite Peak's Bear's Den Saloon for live music on weekends, or shed the gear and head downtown to the stately Grand Theater, which opened in 1927 as a venue for vaudeville acts and silent films. The Grand's lineup includes the Nylons, Wisconsin's own BoDeans and the St. Petersburg Ballet, performing Swan Lake in January (www.onartsblock.org).

Best souvenirs

Served in top-notch restaurants including Balthazar in New York City, Nueske's (1-800-392-2266; www.nueskes.com) applewood smoked bacon has a cult following of leading chefs and smoked-meat connoisseurs. Drive east to Nueske's folksy retail outlet in nearby Wittenberg, where you can sample buttermilk and root beer out of barrels or head south to Mullins Cheese (1-715-693-3205; www.mullinscheese.net) in Knowlton for a trunkload of mild Colby cheese and squeaky-fresh curds.

Looking ahead

Carved out of the Wisconsin River, Wausau's downtown whitewater kayaking course is one of the nation's best. Learn how to navigate the rushing waters or stop by to watch the freestyle championships held every summer (www.wausauswhite water.org).

Ann Schwede is a freelance writer living in Madison, Wis.


Italy's Slow Food movement has meandered all the way to Wausau, where chef Jolene Lucci uses local organic ingredients whenever possible to create sophisticated, yet homey fare at the Back When Cafe (1-715-848-5668; www.backwhencafe.com). Exposed brick, ample antiques and a crackling fire make for a cozy ambience that pairs well with such specialties as roasted quail with creamy bacon and corn sauce and pumpkin tiramisu.

Prefer your meal beer-battered and deep-fried? Partake in a longstanding Wisconsin tradition: the Friday night fish fry. Sparked by German Catholics who wanted to observe meatless Fridays, Wisconsin's fish fries gained momentum during Prohibition, when tavern owners were looking to lure crowds. If it's Friday (or even Wednesday), you'll find one on every corner, served up with coleslaw, French fries and Wisconsin beer. Reserve a booth at bustling Gulliver's Landing (1-715-849-8409; www.gulliverslanding.com ) overlooking Lake Wausau, a stone's throw from the mountain, or follow the locals to Hiawatha (1-715-848-5166) for a down-home tavern experience next to the old train depot.


Fluffy down duvets, double steam showers and a wine and cheese hour await guests at the luxurious Stewart Inn (1-715-849-5858; www.stewartinn.com). The friendly owners of this gracious Arts and Crafts landmark are Minneapolis natives who know more about Wausau than many locals. Ask for a room with a fireplace, enjoy homemade chocolate chip cookies at bedtime and wake to delicious stuffed French toast, pan-seared oats with hot fruit compote or eggs Benedict. (It's your host's choice, like breakfast with Mom.)

If Paul Bunyan partnered with Nemo to create a family resort, the result would look like the Lodge at Cedar Creek (1-888-365-6343; lodgeatcedarcreek.com). Snaking waterslides, a meandering river and a floating log-jam path are just a few of the highlights in this sprawling indoor water park/resort. It's not the Ritz, but kids love the splashy attractions and lumberjack theme and the loft suites are the right fit for fun-seeking families.