Tuesday, May 31, 2011

Top-Ten Guide to a Girls' Weekend in Madison

OK, this blog post was two months in the making.  I'm finally throwing in the towel and just putting it out there.  Pardon any mistakes, but I just want to finally get the darn thing posted.  Enjoy!

At the beginning of April my friend Bethany and I spent a few nights in Madison, Wisconsin. I think it's safe to say we had an amazing weekend. I'm counting down the top ten highlights from the trip, and I'm sharing them with you. I apologize in advance for the mammoth post, but I guess I have about six months to make up for!

10. Hilton Monona Terrace
Our hotel,  Hilton Monona Terracewas just a block from the capitol in the heart of Madison. We were an easy walk to great restaurants and shopping (including State Street). The staff was friendly and happy to give us restaurant recommendations. The hotel is connected by skywalk to Monona Terrace Community and Convention Center, designed by Frank Lloyd Wright. We were able to check into our room early and our special requests (extra towels, pillows, and robes) were waiting in the room. We enjoyed a beautiful view of Lake Monona from our room on the 11th floor. Our only complaints were that the room did not include a refrigerator and that there was no program guide (paper or digital) for the television. We were hoping to catch a good movie in the room but it was a pain to figure out what was on and when. Also, in-room movies were $13! We went the cheap route and ended up watching It's Complicated on HBO Sunday night.

9. Snacks
Much of our trip focused on eating. As moms of little ones, when we're back at home we're likely to pass on the indulgent snacks in favor of healthier, "kid-appropriate" snacks. Believe me, we took full advantage of our freedom to snack while in Madison.

On State Street we popped (ha!) into one of two popcorn shops in the same block. We knew our hotel room didn't have a microwave and thought we might like some popcorn if we ended up watching a movie in our room. I bought lightly salted with no butter and Bethany bought kettle corn. We were too stuffed for the rest of our trip to eat our popcorn but we did enjoy it later with our families. Oh, and in case you were wondering, popcorn zipped in a suitcase makes your clothes smell funny. Not that I'm speaking from experience or anything.

Our next snack stop was Babcock Hall Dairy Store, a dairy store on the University of Wisconsin campus. The university-run dairy plant and store offers delicious ice cream, cheeses, and milk (lunch items are also available), as well as an observation deck where the curious can observe the dairy plant in action. Unfortunately for us, the observation deck was closed due to construction at Babcock Hall. We did, however, enjoy our ice cream cones while soaking up the sun just outside the store.
While we enjoyed carefully plotting out each culinary stop, checking our guide for suggestions and previewing menus online, we couldn't pass up an unexpected stop at Gigi's Cupcakes on our trip to Hilldale Mall. This cupcake chain offered a number of interesting flavors on their menu, with fewer options actually available in the store on the day we were there. I opted for a yummy Almond Joy (a chocolate, coconut, and almond-topped coconut cupcake, while Bethany chose White Midnight Magic. We already had our snack stop planned for the day, so we took the cupcakes to go for a late-night dessert back in our room.

On our second trip to State Street, we hit up Paciugo, where I was able to satisfy my craving for gelato. I loved that you can chose up to three flavors at once (the combinations are endless). I was in a tropical mood and got ruby red grapefruit, coconut, and raspberry rose. It's a good thing gelato isn't available in my little town--my pants thank me.
On our final morning in Madison we stopped for breakfast at Daisy Cafe and Cupcakery and picked up some cupcakes for our families back home. My favorite was the chai cupcake with cream cheese frosting. It was so good I may have to find a recipe online and try recreating it sometime. Bethany said the key lime cupcake was delicious. Trust me, they tasted as good as they looked.

8. Shopping
Other than eating, we spent much of our time in Madison shopping. While we enjoyed spending time in the independent shops along State Street, which I'm singling out for its own place on my countdown (see #4), we also looked for deals in some more traditional places. While a trip to Target may not seem noteworthy for most, we needed to pick up a few things during our trip and I just had to snap a pic of this two-story Target! Technically it's not really two stories, the parking ramp is in the lower level, but the IKEA-like cart escalators made me happy, and I knew my fellow Target lovers would get a kick out it.
We made a trip out to Hilldale Mall to visit AnthtropologieAnthropologie is one of those stores that mothers hauling around a three-year-old and a one-year-old just can't enjoy, so I usually end up browsing their website instead. But in Madison, in grown-up fashion, we took our time walking through, making sure we didn't miss anything along the way. I ended up with a pair of sunglasses and a couple of gifts.
We stopped and chatted with Hannah Wong of HRSDesigns at her booth in the mall. Her delicate metalwork jewelery is beautiful and she is making new pieces (including custom orders) all the time. Both Hannah and Bethany were pregnant and exchanged talk of due dates and the joys of being surprised at the sex of the baby when he or she finally arrives. Good luck, Hannah!

We also stopped at East Towne Mall on our way out of town where we picked up a few last-minute deals (adorable warm jacket for $25!).

There were plenty of other fun shopping neighborhoods (for a lack of a better term) in Madison that we hope to explore in the future.

7. Drinks
So including drinks in it's own category may appear a bit lushy, but I was pregnant or nursing for four years with only a few months break in that span.  I even missed out on margaritas (my drink of choice) IN MEXICO!  So you take advantage when you can.  Besides, when in Madison...

My first drink was a microbrew at The Old Fashioned. The beer selection at The Old Fashioned was impressive, with over 52 brews on tap and several more available in bottles for a total of over 152 beers to choose from. I had a tough decision to make. I chose the Wisconsin-native Esser's Cross Plains Special, a yummy pilsner with a hint of fruit (a little like Blue Moon). I would definitely order it again, and I have actually already had my husband look for it (unsuccessfully) at our local liquor store.

We went out for Mexican at Eldorado Grill the next night and a margarita was a must. Despite an impressive margarita and tequila menu, I opted for tradition and ordered the "World Famous Eldorado Margarita.” It was pretty good, although not the best I've ever had. That said, I drank two!

The next morning I had two firsts. Feeling some lingering effects of the two margaritas, I decided to try out the hair-of-the-dog theory for the first time. At breakfast at Bluephies I ordered the mimosa flight. I'd never had a mimosa before, but the promise of champagne and fruit sounded like a winning combination. The flight includes samples of their orange, mango, and cranberry mimosa. I had trouble distinguishing between the orange and mango, but the cranberry was by far my favorite. Bluephies specializes in vodkas and has too many to count on their menu. And for the hair-of-the-dog theory, I did feel much better after breakfast, but I suspect the delicious and filling food may have had something to do with it.

Our final drink stop was a small liquor store right on State Street. Bethany wanted to bring home a microbrew for her husband. She was having a hard time picking out a six-pack when the helpful guy behind the counter suggested she choose a mix of varieties for the six-pack. Genius! I thought it was such a good idea I got a mixed six-pack for my hubby as well. He loves trying different beers. He drank them the night I returned from my trip (the stress of the last few days watching the girls got to him??). The next morning I asked which he liked the best, and he gave the ever-so-helpful reply of "all of them!"

6. Salon
We kicked off our weekend together at Elevation Spajust a few blocks from the capitol. Neither of us are girly girls, but we were ready to take full advantage of a little "me" time, a rare thing when we are back home with our little ones. I got a haircut (my first in a desperately long time) and a manicure. My hair stylist did a great job and actually already had printed copies of the two photos I had brought in. I will totally understand if you mistake me for Heidi Klum the next time you see me.

I also got a shellac manicure. I've had all of two professional manicures in my life, and both were highly disappointing. If I'm going to spend money on something as excessive as color on my fingernails I want it to last for more than 24-hours (it was actually less in one case). The shellac manicure promises flawless chip-free glossy nails for 14 days. I went with Fedora, a deep dark merlot color. I figured if I was going to have color on my nails for two weeks it should be something versatile, and the fact that it wouldn't chip made me pick a dark color over a nude. My nail tech did an amazing job. She was meticulous and unhurried. She even noticed an issue in Bethany's pedicure (done by a different tech) and took care of it before we left.

The results were beautiful. The photo above is from day 5. My nails were absolutely perfect for almost a full week. On day 6, after a day of cleaning house sans gloves in preparation for company, I started to see a few chips on the very tips. Sadly on day 10 one of the nails started to peel off after the nail itself chipped. And day 11 two more peeled off. I do change several diapers a day and am constantly washing my hands. I suspect this in addition to the cleaning led to the manicure's early demise. That said, I'd 100% get a shellac manicure again, and think I'm actually more likely to get a manicure at all just because shellac is now an option. I did go out and buy a similar color (OPI's Give Me Moor!) to cover the three peeled nails and let the rest of the manicure last a few more days. The color is spot-on, if you're curious.

In addition to a pedicure, Bethany got a 30-minute prenatal message. We tried to get her in for 60 minutes when we booked, but they couldn't fit it in with the timing of our visit and other appointments. I couldn't have picked a better way to start off our time together in Madison. Feeling put together, relaxed, and a little bit girly was just what we needed. I had looked into several other salons when we were researching our trip and chose Elevation Spa for its location, positive reviews on Yelp!, and more affordable prices than some of the other spas in town. was extremely happy with the spa and would recommend it to anyone spending time in Madison.

5. Food
As I've already mentioned, food played a main role in our trip. I don't know if it's because we're moms to little ones and we never get to sit and enjoy a relaxing meal, instead being responsible for getting the kids fed first, but we found so much good food in Madison! In fact, we often found ourselves too full to eat and snack at all the places we had hoped, as evidenced by a "lunch" of granola bars and fruit from Target.

Our first night in town we walked toThe Old Fashioned, a recommendation from a couple of the girls at the salon we visited. The menu is full of Wisconsin favorites: beer-battered Wisconsin cheese curds, a number of sausages, and mac and cheese. I had a yummy burger, and Bethany and I shared a deliciously squeaky order of cheese curds. We got there early on a Friday night and as we left the place was packed.

Lunch the next day was at Così on State Street. Neither of us had ever been to this chain, but we LOVED it. They specialize in flatbread (we could see them punching it out on the spot) sandwiches and pizzas. Both full from a big breakfast, we opted for salads. They were huge and so delicious we cleared our plates. I had the Steakhouse Salad and Bethany ordered the Signature Salad. We agreed we would go back again and would have gone again over the weekend if we'd had more meal opportunities. We both looked up locations near to us. Sadly, the one near me in forty-five minutes away, but I hope to find a reason to stop there in the future.

For our supper Saturday night, we walked several blocks to El Dorado Grill. We were disappointed when we arrived and the host told us they were all booked up. As we were walking away, he chased us down and told us someone had called at the last minute and changed their arrival time and he could fit us in if we could be done eating in an hour. Already planning on eating light, we happily agreed. We decided to split chips and salsa and the corn quesadilla with achiote roasted pork. The salsa was very mild but smooth and delicious. I don't know if it was just the two margaritas talking, but the quesadilla was absolutely divine. A perfect meal to end our evening.
On our final night in Madison we were exhausted and still very stuffed from two full days of eating. We decided to stay in and eat in our hotel room. We order from Glass Nickel Pizzawhich delivered right to our room. We split a smothered chicken sandwich and onion rings. Both were a great accompaniment to an evening of relaxing in front of the television. 

4. State Street
We spent most of Saturday shopping on State Streeta pedestrian street lined with adorable shops and great restaurants. The highlights for me included ReThreads (this isn't your mother's consignment shop) and Jack's Shoes, where their clearance rack is made up entirely of sample sizes, which happen to be my size (7!). It was awesome. The sample sizes were on sale for around 30% off the regular price. State Street was also a hot-spot for some of the political demonstrating going on in the heart of the capitol. During our day of shopping we witnessed a zombie protest parade, a taxi cab protest parade (annoyingly loud honking to a beat), several vendors selling pro-union gear, some random sign holders, and a guitar player singing protest songs. It added a little interest to the otherwise not very diverse environment. In theory State Street would be a great place for people watching, but we found most of the people looked and acted just like us. Not especially exciting.

3. Madison, the city
When we originally started planning our girls' weekend, we were aiming for San Antonio, a warmer, vibrant, and obviously less Midwestern location. When Bethany checked in with her doctor, however, we discovered we'd be limited to easy driving distance from Chicago. We didn't want Bethany to end up on bed rest in San Antonio after all...although now that I'm thinking of it, I would have happily extended my vacation if necessary! We started researching places and ended up picking Madison mainly for its location--easy driving distance from both Chicago and the Twin Cities (good for both of us). When I started telling people about our upcoming trip to Madison, more than once I was asked, "What is there to do in Madison?” My answer was always the same. It wouldn't take much to make us happy. Two good friends thrown together anywhere (for the first time without kids in years) and we were bound to have fun. I was right!

But now I need to give credit where it's due. Madison was a pleasant surprise. The restaurants were amazingly fantastic, with more "locally grown" and "fresh" options than anywhere I've ever visited. The size of the city was perfect, with tons of opportunities for eating, shopping, sight-seeing (capitol, Monona Terrace, museums, galleries, etc.) all within walking distance from our hotel. And most importantly we felt totally safe doing so. The city was clean and the people were friendly. When my husband was transferred from Chicago to Minneapolis for work, our #2 choice was Madison, despite having never visited the city (I'd read great things). I kept thinking to myself throughout the weekend, "Good choice! I could have totally lived here."

It was easy to find public parking in lots and ramps; however the public ramps are tight. I kept thanking my stars I had our little Jeep instead of the Expedition on this trip, as even parking the Jeep and Bethany's mid-sized sedan seemed to require several attempts and strategic passenger pick-ups after pulling out of the ridiculously tight spots. I guess Madison is really living up to their green reputation and hoping everyone will taking the parking hint and drive a Prius or walk and bike instead. Not a bad strategy. We visited at the beginning of April when it's still pretty chilly (three weeks later in Minnesota and we were still getting snow), but I've read all about Madison as a great bike town, and I believe it. We noted several biking lanes throughout the city.

We both agreed eventually we'd like to return to Madison with our families. As I said, it's a good meeting spot between our two cities, but there are also some kid-friendly things to do in Madison, including a children's museum and a free zooAnd it's only an hour from Wisconsin Dells, the water park capital of the world.
2. Breakfast
We were excited to venture out for our first breakfast in Madison, and we were certainly not disappointed at Marigold Kitchen, a casual and vibrant spot just steps from the capitol. I ordered the special, a breakfast scrambler of eggs, asparagus, cheese, and other yummy things I can no longer remember. It was served with toast and fried potatoes. The bread was my favorite of any during the trip--and good bread is important to me. Bethany ordered pancakes (with orange butter and maple syrup) and a scrambled egg on the side. We shared a bowl of fruit. It was a satisfying and filling breakfast.

On Sunday morning we drove out to Bluephiesa fun bright and busy restaurant in the Monroe Street shopping district. We LOVED the menu at Bluephies. There were so many interesting and delicious dishes it was hard to choose. We peeked at their dinner menu online and it also looked fabulous as well. I ordered the Lyle's Favorite scrambler, which was eggs with spinach, bacon, red peppers, red onions, and Parmesan *YUM!*. Bethany ordered the Avocado Extravaganza scrambler, a generous plate of eggs, red onions, andouille sausage, and tomatoes (subbed for mushrooms), topped with avocado salad. The scramblers come with breakfast potatoes and toast. As we were leaving, we passed the dessert counter and lingered oohing and ahhing at the variety of decadent treats, making a mental note to come back if time permitted. Sadly, it did not. On a return trip to Madison, I'd definitely make Bluephies a top priority for both breakfast and dinner. 

On our way out of the city on Monday, we stopped for breakfast at the Daisy Cafe and Cupcakery. This was an adorable stop in a quiet neighborhood. We both ordered a fried egg sandwich, which included fried egg, bacon, cream cheese, purple onion, and cilantro on grilled rosemary bread. It was served with oven-roasted potatoes and fresh fruit. We were both interested in how cream cheese would taste on an egg sandwich. We thought it added a rich creamy element, without some of the "cheesy" flavor other traditional cheeses would add. I thought it was good, but I think I'd try their cremini and Gruyere strata on a future visit.

1. Bring the right friend
And the #1 thing that made this weekend a success? Bringing the right friend. Bethany and I have been friends since high school, and despite living cities and eventually states apart for much of that time, we've managed to stay close friends. 
We have a bit of history traveling together. One summer in college we took a road trip following Route 66 from St. Louis to Amarillo. Literally 80% of our trip was spent in the car, and we still had a blast. See those t-shirts? Bethany made them. Yes, we're that cool.

Bethany and I just travel well together. We both love to plan, but we're also totally flexible. We're pretty low-maintenance. And we like to eat when we travel. Frequently. It's a trait I inherited from my parents, spending family vacations stopping at every pie shop, ice-cream joint, and fresh fruit stand along the way.

As many similarities and Bethany and I share, there are plenty of differences. Bethany is organized; I am not. She works out (even at 8 months pregnant!); I do not. She sews; I do not. She keeps her house clean; I keep mine dirty. She does all those things that I read about on blogs and wonder who does that!?! Bethany does. For example, she froze meals ahead of time so she could be prepared and totally focused for the three-day potty training of her son. As I wrote this, she was shopping for fabric for an apron she's making me, so she can have it done before her baby came! (Welcome Lillian Ruth!) And she made my daughters these precious shirts. Made them! Beautiful.

And strangely I don't think she's crazy. We laugh together about our differences. In fact, about five years ago, in honor of our friendship, she sent me a copy of Big Dog...Little Dog. She does that kind of thing. When I ask, she immediately finds her photo album of our Route 66 trip and has the photo scanned and emailed to me the next day. She's amazing and I love her. And I will spend 3 days with her stuffing ourselves and shopping our brains out anytime!