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Midwest Waterfront Wonders

When the heat of summer comes rolling through, groups can retreat to an air-conditioned museum or movie theater, but soaking up the sun in the cool water of a Midwest waterfront park offers the best of both worlds.

For pure fun in the sun, groups can take their pick of water parks in Wisconsin Dells, Wisconsin, or try their hand at water sports at Lake Calhoun, just outside Minneapolis, Minnesota, or on the shores of Lake Erie in Sandusky, Ohio.

If you’re looking for something with an environmental education focus, head your group to Sleeping Bear Dunes in Michigan or Rathbun Lake, Iowa, where they can mix golf and luxury accommodations with learning.

Wisconsin Dells, Wisconsin

Known as the water park capital of the world, Wisconsin Dells’ mix of fun and education activities is ideal for groups looking to strike a balance between treat and retreat.

Though the city is known today for less-natural water attractions, Wisconsin Dells draws its name from a natural glacial gorge. Groups today can explore the gorge as part of the river walk on the downtown walking trail.

“We like to build an itinerary around the other events groups have going on, whether leadership development or worship services; but we recommend the water parks first and foremost because we have both indoor and outdoor parks, so it’s an all-season activity,” said Tifani Jones, director of sales for the Wisconsin Dells Visitor and Convention Bureau. “Then we can mix in educational activities like the International Crane Foundation and historic sites.”

Wisconsin Dells’ water park resorts generally have convention spaces that groups can use for general or breakout sessions, but groups looking for something different can stay 20 minutes out of town at Woodside Ranch, a dude ranch-like environment with horseback riding and rodeo-style competitions.

“We’re a very easy community to navigate by bus, and we have no restrictions on parking, so there is surface street parking for coaches at hotels,” said Jones.


Sandusky, Ohio

Though it lies on the Great Lakes, at first glance, it’s easy to confuse Sandusky with the Florida Keys. Everything from the vegetation to the weather to the vibe feels more tropical than Northern. The laid-back environment works well for groups looking to relax, but Sandusky and the surrounding islands also pack in enough museums and attractions to keep more active groups busy for days.

“Cedar Point and the Goodtime island-hopping cruise are the most popular attractions and a great place to start, and Goodtime can arrange an onboard sack lunch or buffet for groups, as well as island tours,” said Jill Bauer, public relations coordinator for Lake Erie Shores and Islands. “I also highly recommend the Merry-Go-Round Museum and Maritime Museum of Sandusky before and after a boat trip, followed by a tour and performance at Sandusky State Theatre in the evening.”

Jackson Street Pier, where the Goodtime Ferry departs, functions as a coach pickup and drop-off location for groups heading to the islands or staying downtown, and offers bus parking. The pier area has several restaurants that can take groups, but Bauer also recommends letting large groups off at Schade-Mylander Plaza or Washington Park downtown and letting people splinter into small groups at the surrounding restaurants, like the Lunch Box and the New Sandusky Fish Company.

Bauer’s office can provide step-on guides for a city orientation or a tour of the city’s Underground Railroad sites.


Rathbun Lake, Iowa

Sprawling over 828 acres, Honey Creek State Park on Rathbun Lake, also known as Rathbun Reservoir, has been developed by the state of Iowa to create eco-friendly options for outdoor adventure vacations.

Day trippers can avail themselves of miles of hiking and biking trails; boat rentals for leisure or fishing excursions in the 50-slip marina; a water park; and kayak, canoe and paddleboard rentals on the lake. Overnight guests can stay at Honey Creek Resort, a LEED-certified golf resort facility developed by the state.

According to Andy Woodrick, general manager for the Honey Creek Resort State Park, “a typical group spends two or three days, and summer weekends fill up very early, as does September, peak time for corporate retreats. We have two on-site naturalists year-round and five to six in the summer who can organize custom geocaching and scavenger hunts, guided hikes and kayak lessons.”

Beyond the typical amenities you’d expect from a resort, Honey Creek also offers groups opportunities for environmental education through special tours of its composting facilities, Audubon-certified golf course, wind turbines and solar panels.

“When TripAdvisor was setting up their green standards, we were one of the few properties they reached out to for advice,” Woodrick said.


Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore, Michigan

One of two national lakeshores in Michigan, Sleeping Bear Dunes stretches along 65 miles of Lake Michigan shoreline, protecting an area of bluffs and sand dunes that look more like a scene from “Star Wars” than your typical Michigan vacation site.

“The best place for groups to begin their visit is with a slide show and exhibits that explain the history of the area in the visitor center, followed by the seven-mile scenic drive on Pierce Stocking Road, which takes you through the dunes and woods, including many overlooks and platforms that jut over Lake Michigan and give magnificent views of the lake,” said Janet Kasic, executive director of Circle Michigan, the state’s group travel marketing organization.

On the 35 miles of beaches and 100 miles of hiking trails, groups can take self-guided walking tours of the flora and fauna of the nine different ecosystems scattered through the park. Summit hikes of the larger sand dunes can take three to four hours and range from moderate to difficult; they are best for more adventurous groups.

There is no dining available in the national lakeshore, but groups can choose from a variety of dining and lodging options in Traverse City and the Old Mission Peninsula wine country.