Betty Lou offers nighttime nautical adventure.
Madison doesn't lack for entertainment options during the warmer months. By the end of winter, a mass case of cabin fever makes us almost hyperactive when it comes to creating and finding activities as soon as the ground thaws.
But most of the events that let us enjoy the great outdoors overwhelmingly take place during the day. What if you're a night owl, though, and want to find ways to socialize and take in the moonlight? As it turns out, a group hike with flasks isn't your only option.
Bases loaded, attendees too
It's a night out on the town with a side of baseball.
The Madison Mallards and the organization's president, Vern Stenman, have gone to great lengths to make baseball games at their Warner Park Duck Pond stadium, 2920 N. Sherman Ave., appealing to as many demographics as possible. They've been making additions, tweaking the lineup of special events and altering the face of the stadium itself.
Recent upgrades include a giant sandbox near the front gates that would make any kid (or kid at heart) cry out with joy. There's food for every kind of stomach - from traditional ballpark fare to meats smoked on-site, and an entire cart dedicated to nosh made from locally sourced, organic ingredients. "It's where Madison goes to be Wisconsin," Stenman likes to say.
Another addition is the Triple Play section, featuring original Wrigley Field swivel seats that border the wall along the third-base line. The $23 Triple Play tickets include a couple of drinks and food from a private concession window, plus an excellent view of the game.
But there are plenty of attendees who are a little more interested in the action happening off the field. For them there is the Duck Blind, a series of terraced decks out in right field where small to large groups can carouse to their hearts' content.
It's an ingenious solution to serving the many disparate groups that attend ballgames, with minimal conflict. You've got your more family-friendly spaces in the box seats and bleachers - and then, well separated, there's an area for adults to let their hair down.
The Duck Blind admission price is $26 to $36, depending on whether you want reserved seats and whether it's a weekend. That buys you all-you-can-eat ballpark food and all-your-liver-can-process beer from a special Duck Blind concessions stand, as well as ample room to move around. (Soda-only Duck Blind passes cost $21-$31.) General Duck Blind tickets give you access to picnic tables and a few long benches with views of the field, and groups can also reserve tables or even entire rooftop areas for special occasions.
Wherever you are in the Duck Blind, the atmosphere is one of revelry. Between the free-flowing beer and the open air, the people who populate the party section are generally, shall we say, lively. The focus is a little less on the game and more on making friends - and moves.
Stenman notes that, in addition to the office parties and friendly group outings, the Duck Blind has become something of a go-to locale for men and women on the make. Whereas out in the bleachers you're likely to find as many old-timer sports fans as parents introducing kids to America's pastime, the average age of the folks in the Duck Blind is late 20s to 40s.
It makes a certain sense: There is a large, freely circulating group of people, and for one flat fee you get all the drinks and food that might otherwise cost you a paycheck during a night at a traditional club. For the right couple it might even make for a good date - but the section seems even more suited to mingling.
Volleyball and cigarettes
If you prefer to pair your cheap beer and dive-bar color with serious sand volleyball action, look no further than the Wisco, 852 Williamson St. The near-east-side institution, formerly known as the Willy Street Pub and Grill, recently caved to popular pressure and officially changed its name to match what locals have been calling it for years. But that's about all that's different.
There is still remarkably decent bar food at the grill, and straightforward, affordable drinks. The floor inside the bar still slopes at odd angles. Especially bouncy bands that play the venue still hit their heads on the low drop ceiling. And out back there is still an impressive patio seating area - with a sand volleyball court right next door.
It may seem a little incongruous - generally volleyball courts have been the purview of serious sports bars (think the Stadium Bar on Monroe Street or Pooley's on High Crossing Boulevard) - but that hasn't stopped the Wisco, traditionally more of a biker bar, from hosting league play and the occasional reserved party in the backyard court.
On Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday nights during the summer, leagues take over the sand as the sun sets. And there's plenty of room nearby to just sit and watch. The patio area has comparatively ample seating for a watering hole located in a tight residential spot, and it also features a stand that sells munchies like fresh doughnuts.
As for the teams that play at the Wisco, diversity is the word. You need not be a diehard athlete or a dedicated boozehound to play, but both are okay. Most league members come from the neighborhood and reflect its quirky nature. You're just as likely to find fresh-out-of-college apartment dwellers as you are seen-it-all barflies, competing with cigarette in hand out on the sand. Just be sure to leave the kids with a babysitter.
Don't be scared off by the nondescript exterior and rough-and-tumble atmosphere. Inside the faded salmon-colored house at the corner of Williamson and Paterson streets, the bartenders are friendly and generally happy to answer questions about using the volleyball court. While you're there, they'd be even happier to pour you an incredibly affordable beer or a rail drink. You could also stick around at night for live music. All shows at the Wisco are either free or cheap, and the style of music varies enough to keep things interesting.
What makes the Wisco unique among Willy Street-area bars, though, is that open-air rec room in the back.
Open bar ahoy
If you've lived in Madison for any length of fair-weather time, it's a safe bet you've seen the Betty Lou Cruises boats on the waters of Lake Monona or Mendota. They are among the biggest motorized vessels on the lakes, and with their eye-catching blue awnings, Betty Lou boats have a distinctive presence.
The trips vary from family-friendly to more adult-oriented, and the food offerings may include anything from an ice cream social to a Mexican buffet. Most cruises are focused on meals and sightseeing and take place during daylight or sunset hours.
If you're not so keen on the distinct possibility of being mooned by a certain sailing club as you pass the UW Memorial Union Terrace, though, and you enjoy the idea of a later-evening nautical experience, Betty Lou has you covered.
The Friday night music cruises run from early June to early October and include the draw of an open bar, an appetizer buffet and a decent array of local musical guests. Launching from the Mariner's Inn, at 5339 Lighthouse Bay Dr. on Lake Mendota's north side, this cruise is less focused on enjoying the natural beauty of the lakeshore and more on socializing - and, let's be honest, that open bar.
It's an ideal setting for small group outings or a relatively open-minded date. On a recent cruise, the average age skewed young, with two separate 20-something birthday parties dominating the decks.
If you're not keen to share in the celebrations of strangers, there are a few different areas of the boat to enjoy on your own. The birthday groups mostly stayed below decks or on the bow, but perched in the corner of the upper level, local acoustic rocker Mark Croft provided the musical ambiance for this particular trip. He played a mix of covers and originals and bantered with the small, more attentive crowd that sat to listen as the night skyline of downtown Madison passed by.
It may not be the Chicago lakeshore, but the view of Madison's lights is still nothing to sniff at. Between the ever-changing colors of the Capitol dome, the crowded Terrace, and lights from the cluster of private and campus buildings, the view from the water provides a beautiful perspective that many residents never get.
It's a pretty good deal, too. You get all of that - the relaxing nautical adventure, the food, the free-flowing alcohol - for $44, or the price of one somewhat fancy meal.
Just be sure to plan your drink intake carefully. No one wants to be the guy who tumbles off the dock as you disembark at the end of the night.