The Bergstrom-Mahler Museum offers whimsical art.

If you’ve never heard about Fox Cities, Wis., then you may not be alone. I recently spent a few days there and had a wonderful time touring, shopping, eating and more. I had no idea how much they have to offer, and the convenience and price make it that much sweeter.

With a little flexibility with dates, you should be able to fly in to Appleton, Wis., for less than $500. Then it’s a short cab or rental car ride to your choice of accommodations in Fox Cities, aka “Wisconsin’s Shopping Place.” Our first stop was Fox River Mall, Wisconsin’s second largest mall with more than 180 stores in one place. Here you’ll find Scheel’s, which is an employee-owned, expansive sporting goods store. It began as a hardware and general merchandise store in Sabin, Minn., in 1902, and today offers a “try before you buy” archery shooting range.

Wisconsin cheese takes many forms - a display at Simon’s
and a basket of flowers in cheese, a carving by Troy Landwehr.

A short time later, it was on to the Bergstrom-Mahler Museum – dedicated to paperweights! I know, it sounded odd to me too at first, but it was really quite interesting. They describe it as “the world’s most representative collection of antique and contemporary glass paperweights, a stunning collection of Germanic drinking vessels dating from 1573, a collection of Victorian-Era glass baskets and an ever-growing collection of contemporary glass.” The museum is located in a 1929 Tudor home, bequeathed to the City of Neenah by John and Evangeline Bergstrom, along with her extensive glass collection. The stories and artifacts are fascinating. The area’s history is in paper-making. At the turn of the 20th century, there were more millionaires in Neenah than in any other city west of Province R.I., all paper barons.

The Vince Lombardi Restaurant is a museum to the popular legend, including a replica of his famous trophy.

Kleenex was invented in Neenah – who knew? Fox Cities are really 19 communities, of which Appleton is the largest. In downtown Appleton you’ll find a phenomenal farmer’s market. Local farms focus on dairy – cheese in particular. For crops the focus is feed, not food, although there are boutique farms that grow berries and the like. They have several large festivals each year, including Oktoberfest in late September and a giant food festival with 120-150 booths.

In Little Chute, another of the Fox Cities, they hold the Great Wisconsin Cheese Festival the first weekend in June. There you’ll find cheese carving demonstrations, some amazing cheese carvings on display, a cheese curd eating contest, beer and wine tastings, and so much more (littlechutewi.org). The museum held a reception where I was able to see the art of cheese carving up close with a demonstration by renowned cheesecake and winemaker Troy Landwehr. Among his many cheesecarving accomplishments is a replica of Mount Rushmore carved from 700 pounds of Land O’ Lakes cheddar! I watched as he carved 40 pounds of cheddar into a beautiful vase of flowers, with amazing attention to every detail. Watch him carve 1200 pounds into the Statue of Liberty in a time lapse video on YouTube at .

Kerrigan Brothers Winery has a nice gift shop and loads of different wines to taste.
Get creative at the Fine Art Studio which offers glass making - fun!

“I carve big ones in the freezer,” said Landwehr. He also gave us some details about his winemaking business, which he started in 2000 with apple trees he grows on his own land. Located in Freedom, Wis., the wine list of Kerrigan Brothers Winery () includes homemade wines such as apple-cranberry, blackberry, blueberry-cherry, and many others. To go with all of the wine you and your friends will be tasting between shopping excursions, be sure to leave room for some amazing chocolate. We tasted our share including our own creation at Wilmar Chocolates. This is one of the many boutique-style shops you’ll find while visiting Fox Cities. Wilmar has been in business since 1956. In 1984, current owner Liz Garvey said she got out of college and went to the original owner saying, “I want to buy your business!” She said he told her she would need a man due to all of the very heavy lifting involved, so she recruited her brother and a sister-in-law.

Wilmar’s chocolates offers handmade pecan ‘Wilmarvels...’

They still make the original, handmade recipes, with a few additions of their own. They have a make-your-own bar where you can choose what kind of chocolate you want and then add ingredients you choose for your personal chocolate treat – such fun! While on your girlfriends getaway, stop by the Fire Art Studio where you can make your own creation: jewelry, glass fusing, pottery painting, or make a mosaic. This was a blast! We also visited Simon’s Specialty Cheeses (), where they have some unique offerings such as their signature chocolate cheese fudge and three-year extra sharp cheddar, as well as many other cheeses, sausages, beers and wines. Be sure to set aside an evening for dinner at Vince Lombardi’s Steakhouse, where you can enjoy a huge Porterhouse steak and take your time admiring the massive collection of Lombardi memorabilia such as hand drawn plays, letters from presidents and a stunning replica of the Lombardi trophy.

...made from huge blocks of pure chocolate

Each year Neenah hosts Ultimate Ladies Day (). The next is set for April 12, 2014. We were able to partake in all the fun at the 2013 event. You can expect brunch, shopping, pampering, prize drawings, a fashion show and more. They really go all out and it is definitely a great time if you can plan your trip for April. Some of the local businesses that offered special drinks, cooking classes and other treats were Gruene’s Pour House, Zacatecas and Cleo’s – all great. You’ll also want to leave some time for outdoor activities. They have a great trail system and there are lots of opportunities for hiking. And I haven’t even mentioned the other museums and numerous galleries! For help planning your own girlfriends adventure, visit .