Great Escapes

Ten destinations guaranteed to fight cabin fever.

Take Hwy. 19 east through charming, rolling countryside to Northfield. Home of St. Olaf and Carleton colleges, there's an air of eternal youth and vigor among the local residents. Dodge joggers as you shop Division Street, stopping in at the Rare Pair for Birkenstocks and clothes, the Blue Marble for "earth-friendly" gifts, and the Cocoa Bean for chocolate-covered pretzels. Overnight visitors can lodge at the cozy Archer House (212 Division; 507-645-5661), which overlooks the Cannon River, or at the nearby Country Inn (300 Hwy. 3 N.; 507-645-2286). Jacobsen's Department Store (419 Division), the all-purpose clothier that faces the Quality Bakery, still sells suspenders and bowties in almost every color.

Cross-country skiers can schuss through the Carleton College Arboretum, a few blocks up Division from the Archer House, or the Cannon Valley Regional Wilderness Park, located just off Hwy. 3 on the way to Faribault. Ceramic lovers shouldn't miss the Charles Halling Pottery Studio (11967 Gates), located on back roads south of town, and antique aficionados can check out Remember When Antiques (418 Division) and Seven Gables Books and Antiques (313 Washington). It's worth getting up early for the caramel rolls at the Ole Store Cafe (1011 St. Olaf Ave.), and the quiche at Treats Ltd. (214 Division) is equally scrumptious. -- Joel Hoekstra

Omaha

First-time visitors to Omaha expect it to be flat, barren, and uninhabited. Surprise! There are hills, trees, and people! While not exactly cosmopolitan, Omaha has its charms, even for the queer crowd.

Any trip to Omaha should start at the Old Market. Warehouses and storefronts, some dating from the late 1800s, have been converted into quirky shops, pubs, and exhibition spaces. The heart of the market is Howard Street between 10th and 11th Streets. Here you'll find V. Mertz (1022 Howard), the best restaurant in town. Although your first instinct may not be to order seafood in Nebraska, ask what's being sautéed before you make up your mind.

Also unexpected in Omaha is a truly great queer bar. The Max (1417 Jackson) proves that a fun place to meet people doesn't have to come with danger around every corner. This kinder, gentler entertainment complex -- the crowd is mixed, but mostly men -- features a large dance floor, several intimate cocktail bars, a patio bar, and just enough attitude to keep it interesting.

If you love the night life, then you'll want to stay downtown, and the Embassy Suites Downtown (555 S. 10th St.; 402-346-9000) is the stylish way to go. For those with more modest needs and budgets, a quick drive west on I-80 will get you to the Best Western Omaha Inn (4706 S. 108th St.; 402-339-7400). It only feels like the suburbs, though -- Omaha doesn't have any 'burbs.

No visit to Omaha would be complete without a trip to the Henry Doorly Zoo (3701 S. 10th St.). Ironically, the zoo is home to the world's largest indoor rain forest, located right here on the Great Plains. -- Eric Jensen

Madison

Madison is such a nice city that you fully expect the Stage Manager from Our Town to welcome you at its center. It's listed on just about every top 10 list -- from the Advocate to the Utne Reader -- of great places to live. And you won't find a city that is more gay-friendly in the Midwest. Queer civil rights are on the books at all levels of government, and Madison's openly lesbian state representative, Tammy Baldwin, is making a run for the U.S. Congress next year.

This city is made for walking, so pack your best boots. Start at the state capitol (tour info: 608-266-0382), located in the middle of the isthmus on which Madison was built. The new Monona Terrace Community and Convention Center (1 John Nolen Dr.), located just to the east, was designed by native son Frank Lloyd Wright.

On the capitol's west side, stroll down State Street and check out the many bookstores, specialty shops, and restaurants. The best burger in town is at Dotty Dumpling's Dowry (116 N. Fairchild). At the end of State you'll reach the University of Wisconsin campus. Head towards Lake Mendota to the Memorial Union Terrace and see why it was recently rated by locals as the "best place to meet the same sex."

There are several places to stay downtown. Canterbury Inn perches above a cozy bookstore (315 W. Gorham, 608-258-8899). Inn on the Park Hotel (22 S. Carroll St., 608-257-8811) is right across from the capitol. After a disco nap, guys will want to head for Manoeuvres (150 S. Blair), and gals should take the short drive east to Geraldine's (3054 E. Washington). If you get lost, just ask for directions from that good-natured stage manager in the capitol square. -- Eric Jensen

Cleveland

Once known as the city with a river that caught fire, Cleveland has experienced an incredible comeback over the last 10 years. Native Clevelandites who have moved away return to the city and wander its streets in bewilderment. A converted waterfront and a spate of new construction have turned a former wasteland into a hot tourist spot.

The line between queer interest and general interest blurs in this new Cleveland. A walk through the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame (1 Key Plaza) is a case in point. The spangled pizzazz of Little Richard and the early androgyny of David Bowie are chronicled alongside the glittery orbs of disco life. And whoever designed the Hall was not without some kind of queer sensibility. The purple sequined mini-car suspended from the ceiling at the entrance bespeaks the same world that spawned Priscilla.

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