In Madison, Wisconsin, chill out on a terrace by a lake
Story and Photos by ROBIN SOSLOWStory and Photos by ROBIN SOSLOW The Dallas Morning News
Published: 10 August 2013 10:29 AM
Updated: 10 August 2013 10:43 AM
MADISON, Wis. — For a refreshing summer escape, how about a place with five lakes whose names end in “aaahh”?
Madison basks on an isthmus between two glacial lakes named Monona and Mendota. Three smaller lakes — Wingra, Waubesa and Kegonsa — ensure proximity to sparkling currents and refreshing breezes.
With August highs staying in the 70s most days, the town’s distinctive terraces are perfect for enjoying these liquid assets and Madison’s other open-air pleasures: local music, craft brews, farm-to-table food and outdoor art.
Anytime deck party:
At the hour when Texans dash from air-conditioned office to air-conditioned car to air-conditioned home, couples and children are twirling on Memorial Union Terrace’s lakefront promenade. Everybody’s welcome at the University of Wisconsin’s sea of tables circled by bright yellow, orange and green chairs, each graced with a stamped-metal sunburst pattern.
Have a seat on the upper plaza, central terrace, half-moon balconies, promenade, the steps at water’s edge, even the gleaming dock that juts into Lake Mendota.
Or dance. Most evenings, Union Terrace presents live acts from singer-songwriters to jazz to jug bands. Local is the common thread; supporting community is the Madison way.
The Cajun Strangers, a Madison band that’s been called the best Cajun act outside of Louisiana, unreels two-steps, waltzes and zydeco via accordion, fiddle, rubboard, “t’fer” (a triangle bent from a cast-iron rake tine) and other instruments.
Monday is movie night. You can order small bites and pitchers of Ale Asylum’s Hopalicious. There’s even free Wi-Fi. But the terrace’s biggest draws are the cool breezes and lake views. This outdoor living room has been the place to socialize, unwind and watch boats bob on Lake Mendota since 1928. Sunburst chairs appeared on the terrace in the ’30s. Updated and manufactured locally, those cheerful chairs are so popular that the campus store sells them, as well as 4-inch miniature models.
An architect’s dream: Monona Terrace
A leisurely walk or quick bike ride east leads to Monona Terrace Community and Convention Center. Frank Lloyd Wright proposed the public venue back in 1938. In 1990, the city’s mayor resurrected Wright’s vision; the curvilinear lakeside building opened in 1997.
The free events enlivening the rooftop terrace are as distinctive as the architecture. Tai chi classes nurture vitality and tranquility; drum troupes, improv comedy and jugglers delight families. The rooftop stays cool even during popular Friday Dane Dances featuring live disco, funk, salsa and merengue.
Between events, you can picnic while watching paddleboarders float across Lake Monona and cyclists whiz along the hike-bike path far below. Stretch out on a grassy plot rimmed by flowers. By the fountain, trace the city skyline and its crown jewel, the Wisconsin Capitol.
Art above it all:
On State Street between the campus and Capitol Square, the Madison Museum of Contemporary Art anchors the Overture Center for the Arts. Striking views on top of the Cesar Pelli-designed building include curious sculptures and the 1926 Orpheum Theatre’s landmark sign.
Circling the dome:
This gorgeous state Capitol is topped with the world’s largest granite dome, which is topped with a golden 15-foot female bronze sculpted by Daniel Chester French in 1920, which rocks a helmet topped by a badger. But of course; the badger is Wisconsin’s state animal.
Restored to its original 1917 splendor, the building’s majestic stonework, glass mosaics, murals (one in which a badger replaced a soldier) and amusing tales are compelling reasons to take a free 45-minute tour. (Great restrooms, too!) Top off the tour by climbing the spiral steps to the observation deck.
Go Saturday for 360-degree views of the bustling Dane County Farmers Market, the nation’s largest producer-only market. Summertime specialties include green Sweet Ann peas, ruby-red strawberries, golden maple syrup, blue potatoes and pink and yellow mushrooms.
Try to spot the buskers playing bagpipes and American Indian flutes. Track boats on the lakes; trace the skyline. Look up at the Capitol’s facade for huge sculpted classical figures busy symbolizing civic ideals.
Lush beer garden: Great Dane Pub
A few steps off Capitol Square, Victorian cream brick and Queen Anne pressed-brick walls of a former hotel enclose a fanciful courtyard with foliage growing two stories high. Here you can chill over a Great Dane craft brew — and, from the upper balcony, watch people chill on the patio far below.
Sip tip: With its chocolate and coffee tones, a Black Earth Porter covers several hedonist food groups. Salud!
The Capital City State Trail runs from downtown past lovely old bungalows, community gardens and funky sculptures to Lake Monona’s north shore. A gilded Thai pavilion marks Olbrich Botanical Gardens, 16 acres of beauty that sprouted from an attorney’s dream to create a free-admission community haven.
The charming Rose Tower looks out across a reflecting pool and sunken gardens to Lake Monona. From another angle, spot the secluded miniterrace with weeping wall, pool and meditation bench.
The sustainability-themed gardens showcase native Midwest-hardy plants. Those in the Thai Garden are cleverly pruned to resemble exotic species. Clipped tree art called mai dat displays a horticulture practice from the 13th century.
A Thai sala (pavilion) provides shelter from rain and heat. In the shade of the Olbrich sala, you’ll find serenity gazing at a divine pool and sculpted dolphins and elephants.
My secret garden
Purple inks the sky as I pedal through Mansion Hill near Capitol Square. An explosion of blooms frames a stone staircase, which leads to a brick path winding around green shrubs and pastel flowers.
A brass plaque reveals this little Victorian fantasyland as Period Garden Park. Lured to a bench, I sit a spell, refreshed by woodsy and floral fragrances, bird songs and breezes.
Robin Soslow is a Florida freelance writer.
When you go
American Airlines offers nonstops (about 2 hours, 15 minutes) between Dallas and Dane County Regional Airport (MSN), which is 15 minutes from downtown Madison.