GREEN BAY, Wis. — Walking around with a giant mustard-colored faux wedge of cheese on your head is not a good look for anyone older than 5, so why is everybody doing it?
In Green Bay, you don't need to ask. In early August, even with the Olympics in full swing, it seems the only sporting event of any consequence is the Packers' training camp. Forget Michael Phelps' record-breaking exploits in the pool. Is Brett Favre coming out of retirement yet again? And where does that leave Aaron Rodgers? Gymnastics' Fierce Five? Bah! What about the Packers' Fierce 14, the offensive and defensive front lines?
University of Kentucky basketball fanatics, meet your even more obsessed match. After all, how many of us are willing to walk around with a dairy product as a chapeau?
I found out just how passionate Packers' fans are during a tour of Lambeau Field. The first stop was the plaza, with the imposing statues of legendary coaches Vince Lombardi and Curly Lambeau (the latter formed the team in 1919 with fellow workers from the Indian Packing Co.; hence the team name).
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Inside the stadium, we ran through the tunnel onto the football field (made of Kentucky bluegrass, I was told) just as the players do. We stopped in the exclusive Legends Club to see how VIPs spend their Sunday afternoons; then we ended with a tour of the Green Bay Packers Hall of Fame, where the team's four Super Bowl trophies are among the 80 exhibits.
Even a Dallas Cowboys fan like me couldn't help but be caught up in the mystique of the only non-profit, community-owned professional sports franchise in the country.
Community-owned is something of a misnomer; the Packers' 380,000 shareholders come from all 50 states and 25 foreign countries.
If your contribution didn't ensure tickets on the 50-yard line, don't fret. During the season, fans congregate in "Packer bars" across the country to don cheeseheads, drink beer and watch their heroes sack and score. (In case you're interested, the Southside Pub on Boston Road is Lexington's designated Packers Bar.)
Beyond the Packers
There is life beyond the Packers, however. The predominant colors in the city might be green and gold, but you can see the entire spectrum of the rainbow on a summer visit to the 47-acre Green Bay Botanical Gardens. The gardens are in a natural landscape of hills, forests and grottos. Plants are chosen for their ability to thrive in the often harsh Wisconsin climate (I must confess that I was surprised to see creamy magnolias and hibiscus in full bloom).
Wisconsin is associated with beer the way Kentucky is with bourbon, and in Green Bay, craft beer has been elevated to an art form. Start any tasting at Titletown Brewing Co., atmospherically located in the former Chicago and Northwestern Railroad Depot. Order a beer flight and pair it with a spicy elk burger or Titletown's drunken mac and cheese.
Just across the street is Hinterland, another great spot for beer tasting. This small artisanal brewery, in a turn-of-the-last century meat-packing warehouse, brews only 11 beers. If you're smart, you'll try them all, but the India pale ale and the Luna stout (with a distinct coffee flavor) were my favorites.
If you're more in a cocktail frame of mind, book the Happy Hour Cocktail Cruise on the Foxy Lady, and head up to the deck for a great sunset over the Fox River.
Plan your visit to include a Wednesday night. That's when Chef Christopher Mangless opens his private dining studio, Three Three Five, to the public. To say that Mangless will send your taste buds into overdrive is an understatement. The six-course meal might start with an organic duck confit rillette with pickled cherry; continue with white-truffle grilled cheese, followed by British Columbia oysters or Maryland crab, and conclude with rose custard and citrus pound cake.
Whatever you do, don't miss a dinner at Three Three Five, but remember, it's open to the public only on Wednesday nights.
Lining the shores of Lake Michigan within easy driving distance of Green Bay are small towns that appear to be frozen in time — where the malt shop on Main Street always seems to be open and the gazebo in the town center is a great place to catch up on gossip. The kind of towns that in our technology-driven rat race of a modern world provide a breath of fresh air.
De Pere, 15 minutes south of Green Bay, is such a town. With one of the longest-standing Main Street programs in Wisconsin, this is the place to find one-of-a-kind establishments, such as Christine's Gallery, and Seroogy's, a family-owned chocolate shop that would turn Willy Wonka green with envy.
If you're in a contemplative mood, head for Voyageur Park and stroll along the newly completed De Pere Riverwalk overlooking the Fox River.
Algoma, on the famed Door Peninsula, is one of those towns that you might think exists only in the imagination. From Christmas Tree Point overlooking Lake Michigan, you have a great view of Pierhead Lighthouse, and a nearby crescent-shaped beach is anchored at one end by an old Indian burial ground.
While in Algoma, check out the indoor and outdoor displays at the Flying Pig Gallery and Greenspace, and then stop in for a tasting at Von Stiehl, the oldest continuously operating winery in Wisconsin. Tastings are free, but for $5 you can get two vintages plus a hunk of Wisconsin cheese.
Manitowoc bills itself as Wisconsin's maritime capital. It's easy to see why during a visit to the Smithsonian-affiliated Maritime Museum, which has the nation's most completely restored World War II submarine, the USS Cobia.
Rahr West Art Museum, housed in a Queen Anne-style mansion, might have Georgia O'Keefe and Andy Warhol in its collection, but many visitors go to see another attraction: a 6-inch disk of blackened carbon steel.
No sculptor created the 20-pound chunk; it got here quite by accident. In 1962, the Soviet satellite Sputnik 4 burned itself out in orbit. One piece, however, barreled through the atmosphere and dropped into the middle of Eighth Street just outside the museum. Fifty years later, it continues to attract curious onlookers. Even the Louvre or the Getty doesn't have a piece of art to rival that.
At Rogers Fishing Village in nearby Two Rivers, you can see the 1886 North Pier Lighthouse — moved from its original spot on the lake to the center of the village — and one of the few original wood structures left on the Great Lakes.
From football to small-town charm, Wisconsin's Lake Michigan area serves a heaping smorgasbord of Americana.