Majestic eagles stick around the Starved Rock area all winter long. (Jack Pienta photo)

NWQ Getaway Guide: Winter Edition

Our region is filled with exciting destinations, available practically in our backyards! Learn more about these popular getaways.

Majestic eagles stick around the Starved Rock area all winter long. (Jack Pienta photo)

Winter Bird Watching at Starved Rock

By Kathy Casstevens-Jasiek, Marketing Director, Starved Rock Lodge
Finding fun outdoor activities in winter that don’t require a lot of equipment can be difficult. If you’re looking for a new adventure, you might try bird watching at Starved Rock State Park, at Routes 178 and 71 in Utica, Ill.
Bald eagles arrive in December and stay until the end of February; a few even live near the park year-round. There are new opportunities every season for viewing, and the only equipment needed is a pair of binoculars, which can be borrowed from the Visitor Center if you have a valid driver’s license. Of course, dressing for the weather is also important.
Starved Rock’s location on the Illinois River provides a perfect winter home for bald eagles during the cold months. The nearby lock and dam keep the water from freezing and allow the eagles – and many other birds of prey – plenty of opportunity for a fish buffet. They nest on Plum Island, in the center of the river. Good vantage points for viewing are at Starved Rock, Lover’s Leap, Eagle Cliff and the Illinois Waterway Visitor Center, opposite the park. The Illinois Audubon Society annually hosts a Bald Eagle Weekend, this year scheduled for Jan. 28-29, featuring a raptor awareness presentation. Starved Rock Lodge offers Bald Eagle Trolley Tours in January and February, for those who want a guided experience.
Another great guided trip is the new Owl Prowl in March, a hike with an ornithologist. You’ll learn fascinating facts about the many species, including that a barred owl’s call sounds like he’s saying, “Who cooks for you?”
Owls are amazing to watch, but because they’re mostly nocturnal, they aren’t easy to spot during a typical daylight hike at Starved Rock. So this is the perfect opportunity, for seasoned and novice bird-watchers alike, to get on the trails at night and see these magnificent birds. At the Visitor Center, workers from Hoo Haven Wildlife Rehabilitation & Education Center, in Durand, Ill., offer presentations on the different species and their habits.
Plum Island hosts other feathered friends, too, typically during their migrations in mid-spring and mid-fall. In fact, the area around Starved Rock is actually a flyway, or bird highway, for migration. Who knew that white pelicans could be found there in the spring and fall? The Lodge will have its first “Pelican Days” in late April 2012. More than 225 different birds visit or live at Starved Rock State Park.
For a complete list of birds found at the park, visit starvedrockstatepark.org. For activities at the Lodge, go to starvedrocklodge.com. ❚

A suite at The Lodge at Geneva Ridge

The Lodge at Geneva Ridge: Excellence & Beauty, Without the Attitude

Now under the same management as next-door neighbor Geneva National, The Lodge at Geneva Ridge (formerly Interlaken), on Highway 50 near Lake Geneva, has more to offer than ever before. Its energetic management team is guided by two ideas: excellence and friendliness.
“Between the two properties, we have a total of more than 28,000 square feet of meeting space,” says General Manager Nicholas Johnson. “Put that together with the three championship golf courses at Geneva National, our renovated 144 guest rooms here at the Lodge, excellent restaurants and lounges on both properties, Lake Como and all of this gorgeous Wisconsin countryside, plus everything that the Lake Geneva area has to offer – and it adds up to one amazing place. We’re very excited about our future, and guests have noticed.”
In fact, just thinking about the variety of guests who’ve noticed brings a smile to Johnson’s face.
“We have an insurance company that rents out the whole place each spring for five or six days,” he says. “We have enough amenities for them to mix things up throughout the week – two top restaurants, nearly 1,700 acres to roam, and excellent meeting rooms for getting down to business.”
The resort also hosts Gary Con, one of the most prominent annual gaming conventions in North America, founded by the late Gary Gygax, a Lake Geneva resident who co-created Dungeons & Dragons.
Still another kind of guest shows up when the Portuguese Water Dog Club of Greater Chicagoland comes to town, as it will again next year, for a water trial event at nearby Fontana Beach. And, there’s that team of hockey players that stays at the lodge and makes good use of Lake Como when it freezes.
“And we also do full weddings,” adds Jesse Seycora, marketing manager. “We recently did a beautiful outdoor ceremony with an amazing backdrop for photography, followed by a very fun reception here in our Lakeview Grille restaurant. The wedding party and guests could easily do everything on this property, without driving around or having that long lapse in between the ceremony and reception.”
It’s difficult to imagine a more romantic nuptial setting than the expansive, terraced backyard overlooking Lake Como. It’s also a space that invites endless possibilities for setup.
No matter what the reason for visiting, guests are always impressed by the golf courses, says Johnson. Really impressed. Geneva National Golf Club features 54 holes designed by masters Arnold Palmer, Lee Trevino and Gary Player. The bent grass tees, fairways and greens are meticulously maintained, and the gently rolling hills of Wisconsin countryside are lovely in every season.
While guests won’t be golfing in winter, they have plenty of alternatives.
“People are sometimes surprised to learn what a great winter destination we are, but think about it,” says Johnson. “We connect with a wonderful network of Walworth County snowmobile trails. Our grounds are studded with oaks, which are absolutely beautiful when the snow falls. And the Lake Geneva area offers all kinds of year-round fun, like holiday festivals and shopping, Dancing Horses performances, music, theater and visual arts options, and, in February, the United States National Snow Sculpting Competition.”
The resort will throw a large New Year’s Eve bash complete with dinner and an after-party from 9 p.m. to 1 a.m. featuring the popular regional band Mr. Big Stuff. Packages are available, but guests are welcome whether or not they want dinner. “It’s going to be fun,” says Seycora. Also, various spa packages are available all winter long, with special ones designed just for Valentine’s Day.
The scenery is lush, the lodge is pristine, and the executive chef highly accomplished, but there’s one thing you won’t find at The Lodge at Geneva Ridge: a snooty attitude.
“We want to excel in all we do, without being pretentious,” says Johnson. “This is a welcoming place. Whether business or leisure, group or individual traveler, we want guests to relax and feel at home here.”
More information may be found at genevaridge.com or by calling (800) 225-5558. ❚

(Adam Barker/Visit Salt Lake City photo)

Chicago Rockford International Airport: Hit the West’s Best, Through Frontier Airlines

Winter’s nearly here, and it’s time to hit the slopes. Once you’ve warmed up on our region’s many ski hills, prepare for a tour out West. Thanks to the newest flight from Chicago Rockford International Airport (RFD), the nation’s premier ski destinations are within easy reach.
Fly from Rockford to Denver aboard a Frontier Airlines flight, and you’ll receive more than free parking at RFD. Once in Denver, you’re a short drive from top ski destinations, and you’re one flight away from many more. Frontier’s Denver hub connects to some 80 North American destinations, including Aspen, Colo.; Lake Tahoe, Nev.; Big Sky, Mont.; and Salt Lake City.
This season, Frontier offers special fly-and-ski packages to several top-notch destinations.
Starting in the Denver area, passengers can easily escape to Vail, Colo., and the luxurious Four Seasons Resort, a Europe-inspired ski resort that sees more than 340 inches of snow every year. Just an hour’s drive from Denver International Airport is the Center Village, in Copper Mountain, Colo., which features relaxing spas, fine dining and a snowboard/ski training camp. Youngsters and ski enthusiasts can practice skiing and jumping inside the Woodward at Copper gym, before testing their skills on the slopes. About two hours from Denver, skiers can also find getaways like Mountain Thunder Lodge, in Breckenridge, Colo. Within easy view of the slopes, this ski-in/gondola-out lodge has been rated Best in Stay by Orbitz and an Insiders Select by Expedia. And it’s just a block from downtown Breckenridge.
There are plenty of reasons to stay in Denver, but why limit the fun? Frontier’s local hub connects to 80 North American destinations, including seven ski havens.
From Denver, fly to Aspen, Colo., where you’ll find Frontier deals at the Limelight Lodge and the St. Regis Aspen Resort. The luxurious St. Regis is tucked into the mountains, close to the Buttermilk Ski Area, home of ESPN’s Winter X Games.
Perhaps its Utah’s snowy slopes you prefer. From Salt Lake City Airport, drive just an hour east to Park City, training ground for winter Olympians. Stay at the elaborate Shadow Ridge Resort Hotel & Conference Center, or get right to the mountains at The Lodge at The Mountain Village, a ski-in/ski-out resort boasting bedroom views of the slopes.
In northern California, skiers are just a few hours from of the Sierra Nevadas and bustling Lake Tahoe resorts, such as the Tahoe Lakeshore Lodge & Spa. With views of the lake on one side, and slopes on the other, this resort is just minutes from powdery slopes.
Don’t forget quiet southwestern Montana. Fly from Denver to Bozeman Airport, and enjoy a pristine view of the mountains. Frontier offers special packages at Big Sky, one of the biggest ski resorts in America. With 5,532 skiable acres and more than 4,350 feet of vertical drop, this resort provides plenty of action. This mountain park offers some 15 resorts, but only the Huntley Lodge, located inside the Mountain Village Plaza, offers special deals for Frontier fliers.
Frontier offers still more ski fun through connections at Durango Airport, in southwest Colorado; Hayden Airport, in northwest Colorado; and Seattle Airport, in Washington state. Warm up your skis now – Frontier’s first flight leaves RFD on Dec. 15. Don’t get left out in the cold this season.
Better yet, go ahead and enjoy the cold! ❚

Granite Peak offers special deals this season for the entire family.

Granite Peak Ski Area: Authentic Downhill Skiing Close to Home

Iranite Peak Ski Area, located just five hours from Chicago in Wausau, Wis., features 74 runs – more than twice the number found at most Midwest ski areas. Situated in Rib Mountain State Park, it boasts conditions you’d expect to find out West. Ancient Rib Mountain’s 700-foot geological advantage gives Granite Peak the tallest vertical drop in Wisconsin and the western Upper Peninsula of Michigan.
Award-winning snowboard terrain earned Granite Peak Parks Transworld Snowboarding magazine’s top honors two years in a row. Tree skiing glades, increased this season by one-third to 65 acres, cover more area than the entire acreage of many Midwest ski areas.
Granite Peak is continually improving the skier’s experience. Already known for having the fastest and highest high-speed, six-person chairlift in the Midwest, Granite Peak has increased its capacity by 33 percent and added a new high-speed beginner conveyor lift.
This year’s enhancements for beginners include twice as much dedicated terrain, a beginner mogul field and rollers, and an “Enchanted Forest Trail” with wild animal figures.
Both the Historic Chalet and the Sundance Chalet feature outdoor patios with heated slope-side seating, firepits and outdoor kitchens that serve grilled specialty items on weekends and holidays. Inside, find food and beverages, including full bar service in the historic tavern, and live entertainment every weekend.
Award-Winning Terrain
Granite Peak’s parks are better than ever this season, with double acreage on the Main Event Park; a top-to-bottom, six-acre, slope-style intermediate Mission Ridge Park, with a six-hit jump line; a Pinroth Bison X Park Groomer; plus seven jibs, including a massive one-of-a-kind multi-hit pyramid, five large round rails and a rainbow drop box.
Better Snow, Longer Season
With the most powerful and sophisticated snowmaking system in mid-America, Granite Peak offers reliable snow conditions all season long. And it’s a longer season. Each year since 2000, crews have produced ever more snow, this year increasing production by 25 percent, with the goal of having all 74 runs open by Christmas.
Wisconsin’s Original Ski Town
No other ski area offers so many comforts and amenities within an urban setting, just minutes from the slopes. Wausau presents a vast array of lodging, dining, shopping, nightlife and entertainment. Stay in comfort and luxury at accommodations ranging from historic bed and breakfast inns to boutique hotels and large, family-friendly complexes.
A Fraction of the Cost of a Western Ski Vacation
“We’re constantly working to make our pricing structure family-friendly and affordable,” says Vicki Baumann, operations manager. “Our Family Festivals in January, February and March are incredible values. A family of four can ski two days, stay two nights, get free rentals, wagon rides, Saturday night skiing and fireworks, all for right around $500.”
Early-bird specials offer savings of $10 per ticket on ski-and-stay weekend packages booked online by Dec. 15. Space is limited, so be sure to book early to lock in preferred dates and lodging.
More information may be found at www.skigranitepeak.com or by calling (715) 845-2846. ❚

Dubuque is filled with great river views and winter fun, from casinos and museums, to wineries and fine dining establishments like the Star Restaurant and Ultra Lounge, shown above.

Dubuque, Iowa: Ample Opportunity for Winter Fun

For many, a winter getaway means skiing – fun days of fast lifts and great runs, followed by cozy evenings of good food in a rustic lodge with snow-covered mountain views. But forget Colorado, Utah or other points west. Visitors can get this, and much more, in Dubuque, Iowa, just a few hours’ drive from Chicago, Milwaukee and Des Moines, Iowa.
With first-rate lodging and dining choices, a variety of activities and attractions for both families and couples, and world-class entertainment options, Dubuque has something for everyone.
For snow lovers, Sundown Mountain Resort, 1699 Asbury Road, has 21 scenic trails and two terrain parks inside a 100-year-old cedar forest. Sundown also boasts the largest ski instruction team in the region. Its two mountain lodges overlook 100 square miles, and the North Lodge has a full-service cafeteria with lounges, large-screen televisions and live music every Saturday.
About 30 miles away is Chestnut Mountain Resort, 8700 Chestnut Dr., Galena, Ill. It offers onsite lodging, meeting facilities and three restaurants, along with spa services, a sauna, whirlpool and indoor pool. Chestnut has 19 scenic trails, covering more than 200 miles, and a terrain park, with a total vertical drop of 475 feet.
“What makes Dubuque a great winter destination is that you can ski Sundown one day, and then drive about 30 minutes and ski Chestnut Mountain the next,” says Keith Rahe, director of Dubuque Convention & Visitors Bureau. But having two top-rated ski resorts so close to one another is only a part of what makes Dubuque a fantastic spot for a winter getaway.
“People can cross-country ski or snowshoe on four miles of maintained trails in Mines of Spain State Park,” says Rahe. “The Heritage Trail also has cross-country skiing, covering about 26 miles, going all the way to Dyersville.”
Lodging varies from quaint bed and breakfasts to Main Street’s Holiday Inn and other national chains like Hampton Inn, Fairfield Inn, Holiday Inn Express, Best Western Plus Hotel and Days Inn. The Hilton Garden Inn is attached to the Mystique Casino. Couples looking for romance can stay at Hotel Julien Dubuque, a premier boutique hotel in the heart of downtown. It offers luxury suites with amenities like whirlpools; fine dining in Caroline’s Restaurant or casual fare in the Riverboat Lounge; and the full-service Potosa Spa. The 170-year-old landmark recently underwent a $30 million renovation.
“We also have several different dining options nearby,” Rahe points out. “Crust Italian Kitchen & Bar is in the historic Cooper Wagon Works Building. L. May Eatery is a new romantic bistro with candlelit tables, and Galena’s Vinny Vanucchi’s Little Italy just opened a location here. The Pepper Sprout specializes in Midwest cuisine using local ingredients. And these are just on Main Street.”
Downtown also offers live theater and entertainment at Five Flags Center and the Grand Opera House.
The Mystique Casino and Diamond Jo Casino are always a good bet, and not just for gambling. Family-friendly options abound. This year, the Mystique opened its new Community Ice Center on Champlain Schmitt Island, now home to Dubuque’s Fighting Saints. Part of the United States Hockey League, a junior hockey league of players under age 20, the team brought home the Clark Cup Championship in its first season last year.
“Both casinos also offer live entertainment and different dining options, and the Diamond Jo, at Port of Dubuque, has a full bowling alley,” says Rahe. Among performers on Diamond Jo’s upcoming lineup are Rich Little, Kenny Loggins, The Little River Band and Steve-O.
Also at Port of Dubuque, along the Mississippi River, is Grand Harbor Resort & Waterpark, with 193 rooms including 31 suites, Tony Roma’s restaurant and a 25,000-square-foot indoor waterpark. Across the street is the award-winning National Mississippi River Museum & Aquarium, which debuted an expansion in 2010. It features an astounding array of live fresh- and saltwater fish; hands-on exhibits; and an amazing 3-D/4-D theater experience. Winter events include Ice Fest, with snow sculpting and ice harvesting, and bald eagle watch weekends.
Wine lovers can visit Stone Cliff Winery, a family-owned business located in the old Star Brewery Building at Port of Dubuque. It holds wine tastings, winery tours and special events. Just a short drive away, in Bankston, Iowa, is Park Farm Winery.
This winter, head to Dubuque for seasonal sports and entertainment; family fun; romance; fine dining; and much more. ❚