Cruising Great River Country in a Toyota Avalon Hybrid

There are two key tips you need to know for your trip
Cruising Great River Country in a Toyota Avalon Hybrid

There are two key tips you can get from this report. We’ll put them here, right up front:

To do so, first get to Wisconsin’s Coulee Country by driving the Avalon onto I-90 from Madison toward La Crosse. Driving the I-system, you’ll quickly appreciate why this is such a highly ranked road machine. Engage the smart cruise control, open the sun roof, and enjoy the Wisconsin countryside. Even with the rush of traffic bustling to The Dells, your drive will be smooth, comfortable, quiet and, yes, pleasant. In about two hours you’ll arrive at Exit 3 in Onalaska. (Check your fuel gauge. Wow! Didn’t use much, did you?) Check in at Stoney Creek Inn—and let your Avalon/Coulee Country adventures begin.  

Stoney Creek Inn is an inspired blend of Roosevelt-Era National Park Lodge infused with fresh-as-today modern hotel amenities. The exterior has that Giant Ponderosa Pine look and the woodsy, wildlife retreat theme is carried through from the reception desk to the bar, dining room, corridors and each of one hundred fifty-seven comfortable guest suites. With ten thousand square feet of meeting and event space, Stony Creek is a top choice for conferences, celebrations and weddings. The staff is good humored, knowledgeable, attentive and eager to help. Guests enjoy a free hot breakfast, free WI-FI, free parking, a business center, fitness center, and heated indoor/outdoor swim-through pool.

Stoney Creek is also a perfect base-camp headquarters for day trips along the Great River Road into Coulee Country. Coulees are the deep valleys that run up to the bottom of the steep bluffs in this river country, and the road usually ends at the base of the hill.

Using Onalaska as a base assures a great beginning and end to your day. Say good morning to “Sunny the Sunfish” overlooking Lake Onalaska along The Great River Road, Highway 35. Head to Mary Cody’s Restaurant to fuel your day’s adventure—it’s located just off the Great River Bike Trail. Owner Mary Cody has operated both a restaurant and catering business in Onalaska for almost twenty years. A “Signature Skillet” or “Breakfast Wrap” will start your day right.

Having experienced the 2014 Avalon Hybrid as a freeway superstar, we wanted to see how it would perform on the back roads. After all, reviews had noted Toyota aimed to give this new version more “tooth” for spirited driving. We plotted a course on two-lane numbered roads, lesser-traveled county highways, and charming little town roads where the shoulder almost rubs against the corn field. With the hybrid equivalent of two hundred horsepower in a four-cylinder, sixteen-valve power plant, and the six-speed Electronically Controlled  Continuously Variable Transmission (ECVT) we put it to the test. Set in sequential shift “sport mode,” the throttle response quickens the electric power steering for livelier handling. The Avalon dashed eagerly up steep bluffs, cruised at speed through verdant valleys, and maneuvered twisting turns along coulee creeks as if it had been bred for road rallies. We were smiling until our cheeks hurt. Serious drivers are going to really, really enjoy this one!

In Sparta, we stopped at the Deke Slayton Memorial Space and Bike Museum. It’s loaded with rare artifacts and space-race memorabilia commemorating Wisconsin’s famous Mercury astronaut, who was from nearby Leon. It’s probably as close as you’ll ever get to a piece of the moon.

Ginny’s Cupboard, located nearby, is the quintessential cozy little diner-malt shop. Founded by owner Deborah Moore and named for her late mother, Ginny’s was a stop on a recent Green Bay Packers Road Trip and was also featured in a Dateline NBC program about small towns. Take a seat at the 1950s soda fountain or at one of the vintage tables. Try homemade soup, a panini or a salad, but don’t miss the sundaes, shakes or ice cream soda combo of the day! And it’s OK to call the friendly, local high-school and college student wait staff  “jerks.” They take great pride in their soda-jerk training.

Just up the road, the Paul and Matilda Wegner Grotto is an “outsider art” environment preserved with support from the Kohler Foundation. Inspired by the notable Dickeyville Grotto, the Wegners created theirs from 1929 to 1942 in their summer retirement home’s yard. Using cement, bits of carnival glass, heirloom china, seashells and even gunpowder casings, they built a huge replica of their 50th anniversary cake, a church prayer garden and a twelve-foot model of “the Bremen,” a passenger ship. Their creativity turned everyday objects into works of wonder.

Before we drove this wondercar, our experience with gas-electric powered vehicles was pretty much limited to golf carts and bumper cars at amusement parks. The Avalon’s gas-electric Hybrid system is more advanced from them, than the latest I-Phone is from a tin-can telephone. We have entered a new era, space cadets, so prepare for the ride of your life!

Don’t ask us how it all works. We can’t explain the technology that enables a smartphone to connect to virtually anyone on the planet, and neither can we explain how they made the Avalon Hybrid so jaw-droppingly amazing. For answers, visit a Toyota showroom and meet one of the company’s uber-savvy representatives. They apparently attend some sort of specialized Hybrid School, where they learn how to explain it in plain English. And they will, gladly. Like the smartphone, real pleasure comes with using it. With the Avalon, just climb in, buckle up and be thrilled.

Up in the hill country you’ll find some of Wisconsin’s new crop of vineyards. Drive wiggly county roads to Tenba Ridge Winery on Joe Coulee Road, south of Blair. Owner John Dill is continuing traditions of his great-grandfather, an Alsatian winemaker. His wines are made from grapes and other fruit, some from as far away as Germany. Wine drinkers who have steered clear of “fruit wine” will be surprised by Dill’s Black Currant wine, a scrumptious pairing with chocolate. Bring a picnic lunch or snacks; linger, enjoy wine and take in the panoramic views from the terrace.

A quick jog to the northeast takes you to Brambleberry Winery and Bed and Breakfast Inn on Claire Road, near Taylor. Winemakers/innkeepers Sherry and Chris Hardie say it was Dill who encouraged them to make wine. Chris and Sherry have discerning palates, cultivated over ten years as wine columnists for the La Crosse Tribune. Brambleberry Winery is situated on the farm that’s been in Chris’s family for almost a century. In addition to grapes, they raise Scottish Highland cattle, Scottish Blackface sheep and Suffolk sheep. The estate reflects Hardies’ Scottish heritage. Try “The Piper,” “Highland Red” and “Bonnie Lass” wines in the classy tasting room.

Climb back in the Avalon and wander back toward Onalaska. For one more thrilling test drive, head south to Highway 108 and Highway T, just north of Mindoro. Take Highway 108 south through the awesome switchbacks of the “Mindoro Cut.” This marvelous twister snakes through Phillips Ridge, linking Mindoro with West Salem. It was commissioned in 1907 by Mindoro farmers and La Crosse County as part of the “Good Roads Movement” to link a creamery in Mindoro with a railroad station in West Salem. It’s on the National Register of Historic Places and is the second-deepest hand-hewn cut in the Western Hemisphere. The Avalon is ready for this test, and you’ll find it unforgettable.

The Avalon can do it all. It will carry you safely in about as much comfort as you’ll get in your favorite chair back home. The seats are leather, heated, and adjustable in eight directions. The Avalon also has a top-of-the-line, Bluetooth-ready sound system with audio jack, USB port and eight speakers. It can play your favorite music better than you hear it at home. Bring your iPod or CDs—or connect to digital Sirius XM radio for a soundtrack for this spectacular Coulee Country.

The Avalon’s interior is space-age stylish with Optitron gauges developed by Lexus for superior visibility in all light and all driving conditions. It’s high-tech but easy to use, with switches, knobs and controls where you can reach them, and information displays that are logical, easy to read and adjust.

This Hybrid runs on a high-tech gas-electric system that squeezes an amazing forty miles of pleasant driving out of every gallon. The EPA estimates Avalon will save about $1,000 a year on fuel compared to the average vehicle in its class. While it’s eagerly eating up winding roads, it also earns a nine on a scale of ten in the Greenhouse Gas-fuel economy rating. As a result, it’s nice to the environment while being a real joy to drive.

When you return to Onalaska, head back to Mary Cody’s for the evening. The gracious wait staff dim the lights and polish the wine glasses and greet you like family. You’ll find well-chosen wines that complement Mary’s tempting dinner options featuring comfort and classic cuisine. We recommend “Grilled Portabella Mushroom” and “Fresh Spinach Salad.” Dressed with strawberries, blue cheese and candied pecans, the salad is a fabulous starter. The “Mac and Rack” includes “Chef’s Choice Macaroni and Cheese” and a half-rack of ribs. It was outstanding! Most brilliantly, Mary has solved the “no room for dessert” dilemma. Her handmade chocolate truffles pair perfectly with a stem of vintage port for a sweet toast to a memorable Avalon Hybrid and Great River Country expedition.

Onalaska Center for Commerce and Tourism 1101 Main St., Onalaska (800) 873-1901

Brambleberry Winery & Inn N3684 Claire Rd., Taylor (608) 525-8001

Deke Slayton Memorial Space and Bicycle Museum 200 W. Main St., Sparta (608) 269-0033

Ginny’s Cupboard 127 N. Water St., Sparta (608) 269-6669

Mary Cody’s Restaurant & Maggie’s Lounge 205 Main St., Onalaska (608) 519-2200

Paul and Matilda Wegner Grotto Hwy 71, 1/4 mi. west of Hwy. 27, Cataract (608) 269-8680

Stoney Creek Hotel & Conference Center 3060 S. Kinney Coulee Rd., Onalaska (608) 781-3060

Tenba Ridge Winery N27587 Joe Coulee Rd., Blair (608) 525-2413