While the likes of New England, California, Florida, Arizona and Nevada are popular fly-drive destinations, Great Lakes states Wisconsin and Minnesota remain relatively undiscovered by the British.
Yet the northern Midwest offers the perfect antidote to today’s ever-more frantic society for those who prefer life in the slow lane – and even more so for golfers who enjoy playing top courses on their travels.
Landing at gateway Minneapolis-St Paul, I set off on a circular trip that takes me from the Mississippi River right across Wisconsin to Lake Michigan and up into Minnesota’s own lake district.
Famed for its dairy farms and cheeses, Wisconsin is also the home state of Frank Lloyd Wright, regarded as America’s greatest architect. More than 40 of his creations still adorn the state, from affordable American System-Built homes to grand commercial and public structures. To mark the 150th anniversary of his birth, a Frank Lloyd Wright Trail was created in 2017 to link nine publicly-accessible buildings along a 200-mile, self-drive route in Wisconsin.
My trip allows me to take in several iconic trail edifices. I pay homage to the great man at Taliesin, the beautiful home he built on a bluff overlooking his 800-acre estate in Spring Green and named in honour of his Welsh grandparents. Managed by Taliesin Preservation, daily guided tours run from the nearby Frank Lloyd Wright Visitor Centre. Close by, the cemetery of the tiny Unity Chapel contains his grave. However, his remains were removed in 1985 and cremated, his ashes reburied at Taliesin West in Arizona and mixed with those of his third wife.
I also pass by several other trail buildings: Wyoming Valley School Cultural Arts Centre, three miles from Taliesin; the ornate AD German Warehouse in Wright’s home town, Richland Centre; Madison’s First Unitarian Society Meeting House, where he was a member of the congregation; and the curved Monona Terrace civic centre, also in Madison, which finally opened in 1994 – 35 years after his death.
My first overnight in Wisconsin is in Milwaukee, staying at the towering Potawatomi Hotel & Casino – Wisconsin’s largest gaming facility. What made Milwaukee famous, as Rod Stewart sang, was its beer. Once the beer capital of the world and home to America’s four largest brewers, just one – Miller – remains and is open for tours. Today, Milwaukee has a vibrant craft beer and microbrewery industry, the Lakefront Brewery on Lake Michigan offering a huge beer hall and tours.
Its other claim to fame is as the home of American icon Harley-Davidson, and I soak up a century of motorcycling history at the Harley-Davidson Museum.
South-east Wisconsin is golf nirvana with 75 golf courses, 15 of them in Milwaukee. The magnificent Erin Hills, host of the 2017 US Open, is just 36 miles from downtown. Unusually for an American course, walking is not only allowed, it is the only way you can play it. Even trolleys are banned. You hire a caddie or, as I do, carry your own bag.
An hour north of Milwaukee, Kohler is my next stop. A purpose-built village created a century ago by industrialist Walter J Kohler for immigrant workers at its new factory, it was modelled on two English templates: Port Sunlight, built by Lever Brothers for its soap factory workers; and Letchworth, the world’s first garden city. The American Club, Kohler’s stately Tudor-style, five-star resort hotel that was once a dormitory for immigrant employees, is my home for the night. The nearby Carriage House is now the hotel’s spa while the Kohler Design Centre a few steps away displays contemporary bathroom, toilet and plumbing fixtures.
Whistling Straits is one of four Destination Kohler golf courses and is draped over dunes edging Lake Michigan. A Pete Dye-designed masterpiece that opened in 2000, it is both a beauty and a beast, having already staged three US PGA Championships and set to host the Ryder Cup in 2020. Walking the course, I partner a charming American couple, my amiable caddie AJ – whose uncle, Calvin Peete, was the most successful black golfer before Tiger Woods – helping me navigate the hazards. As we play, a bald eagle soars overhead on a fishing foray while sheep resident on the course jostle for the titbits AJ has brought them.
Driving leisurely through lakeside communities and then heading inland, I pass countless farms with quaint red barns, many with pumpkins for sale outside. I stop off for a couple of nights at newly-opened Sand Valley Golf Resort in central Wisconsin, close to the ‘Cranberry Capital of the World’, Wisconsin Rapids. Laid out over pine-covered sand hills, it boasts two magnificent courses with fairways bisected by gaping sand tracts: Bill Coore and Ben Crenshaw’s Sand Valley course; and Mammoth Dunes, by David McLay Kidd, open fully from spring 2018. Both are stunning, but Mammoth blows me away with its sheer grandeur.
One hundred miles south, my final Wisconsin night is in state capital Madison. Named America’s greenest city for its profusion of parks, lakes and hiking and cycling paths it’s also a city of elegant architecture that includes the granite-domed Wisconsin State Capitol and Classical Revival-style Governor’s Mansion. At delightfully-named restaurant A Pig in a Fur Coat, I pig out on a selection of meat dishes at a table made from a butcher’s block (its slogan is good food, good people, good farms, dead animals), then retire to my spacious room at chic boutique hotel HotelRED, with its floors and walls of polished concrete.
En route back to Minneapolis, I skirt the ridge-lined Upper Mississippi River that forms part of the Minnesota-Wisconsin border. Parking my rental Toyota 4Runner 4×4 alongside Pontoon Slough in Wisconsin’s Upper Mississippi River National Wildlife and Fish Refuge, I watch two anglers slowly paddle their canoe past me in the dying rays of the setting sun, rippling the still waters to make the reflected trees, cloaked in autumn hues, shimmer like gold.
I could stay here for hours but I need to hit the road again.
My Great Lakes driving adventure begins and ends in Minnesota’s twin cities: its largest metropolis, Minneapolis, and state capital St Paul. These one-time flour-milling centres on the Upper Mississippi – the river rises in Itasca State Park in northern Minnesota, continuing for 650 miles through the state – are now cultural hubs with museums and art institutions, a great foodie scene, a fascinating historic quarter and the 193-acre Minnehaha Falls Park with walking and biking trails and a waterfall half-way between both downtowns.
Just minutes from Minneapolis-St Paul Airport is the city of Bloomington’s Mall of America, America’s largest shopping mall which celebrated its 25th anniversary in 2017. It is far more than just a mall, incorporating 50 restaurants, the Sea Life Minnesota Aquarium and the Nickelodeon Universe theme park with its FlyOver America ride, five roller coasters and the Hard Rock Cafe featuring a 1,200-capacity live music stage, where I watch Prince tribute act Chase & Ovation (Minneapolis was Prince’s home town) – quite apart from its 520 stores. A bonus for shoppers is that there is no sales tax on clothing or shoes. The mall is bookended by the Radisson Blu Mall of America and JW Marriott Minneapolis Mall of America hotels.
I start my trip with a stay at the Radisson Blu, a stylish luxury hotel with 500 fashion-inspired rooms and striking public areas that has a glass Skybridge linking it to the mall, and finish at the swanky JW Marriott. They make a great base for visiting the twin cities, with the Mall of America having direct connections to them and the international airport on the Metro light rail system.
Taking in my first American football game, I watch home NFL team the Minnesota Vikings play arch rivals the Detroit Lions at the magnificent US Bank Stadium, venue for the 2018 Super Bowl. Beforehand, I experience a tailgate party, an NFL tradition, drinking beer and shots served from giant coolers on the back of a pick-up truck. The car park is full of partygoers, many wearing Vikings football shirts and some in fancy dress, and the place is rocking.
Minnesota has 500 golf courses, 90% of which are open to the public. Courses a short drive from the twin cities include Tom Weiskopf-designed The Wilds Golf Club and Rush Creek Golf Club, where a Scots piper greets visiting golfers. Twenty minutes from Bloomington is 2016 Ryder Cup venue Hazeltine National Golf Club, where the USA’s golf stars won the cup back from Europe. Although a private club with limited public access to the course, the clubhouse has a Heritage Collection room the public can visit by appointment, featuring Ryder Cup memorabilia and historic golf artefacts. I don’t play Hazeltine but I visit the heritage room and try out its indoor learning centre with its contoured putting green and golf simulator.
Although Mother Nature’s annual autumn foliage display is not yet in full swing, I do get tantalising glimpses of the region’s kaleidoscope of colours in central Minnesota’s Brainerd Lakes, a popular domestic holiday area encompassing 500 lakes and waterways two hours upstate from the twin cities.
Pockets of vibrant reds and yellows along the perimeter of Gull Lake herald the promised mass transformation when I take a sunset cruise aboard Destiny Cruises’ elegant motor yacht, North Star, setting sail from a dock at the century-old, family-friendly resort Grand View Lodge, where I spend two nights in a wooden cabin amidst the trees. The vessel operates public cruises from May to mid-October and docks by fine-dining restaurant Bar Harbor Supper Club, where I enjoy cocktails and steak after viewing the captivating private historic car and wooden boat collection of Bar Harbor owner and entrepreneur John Allen in a barn he calls Fort Mahogany.
Brainerd is also home to the Midwest’s largest racetrack, Brainerd International Raceway, where you can watch high-octane dragsters and muscle car races or take the wheel of a racing car yourself.
This area is awash with excellent golf and Grand View Lodge has two 18-hole golf courses on-site as well as a nine-hole family-friendly course with kids’ tees and wider cups to make putting easier. I test my game on two of the area’s finest facilities – Grand View Lodge’s The Preserve and The Classic Golf Club at Madden’s on Gull Lake, rated one of Minnesota’s top public golf courses. They serve up as enjoyable a test of golf as you will find anywhere, without the crowded fairways or big-ticket price tags.
Like Wisconsin, nature abounds in Minnesota. The state has six national parks, monuments and recreation areas, a further 70 state and local parks and recreation areas as well as 1,400 wildlife areas. The largest population of timber wolves in America’s lower 48 states can be found in the US Forest Service-managed Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness and Superior National Forest.
Nicknamed the ‘Land of 10,000 Lakes’, Minnesota actually has almost 12,000 lakes measuring more than 10 acres and incorporates 189 miles of shoreline on Lake Superior, stretching from Duluth, at the lake’s far south-western tip, up to Canadian province Ontario. Wisconsin, by comparison, is flanked by Lake Michigan to the east and Lake Superior to its north, with 820 miles of lakeshores besides vast swathes of forest.
Take a driving tour of both states and you will be venturing onto roads less travelled by other transatlantic visitors. Just remember to pack your golf clubs.
For more information about Minnesota and Wisconsin, visit www.travelwisconsin.com and www.exploreminnesota.com, or www.greatlakesusa.co.uk. Tour operator America As You Like IT offers a fly-drive tour of both states, with golf. Peter Ellegard’s Advantage Rent A Car vehicle was provided by Your Car Hire. Book through your local travel agent.
Photos Copyright © Peter Ellegard