Recreation & Destinations

NWQ Getaway Guide, Spring-Summer Edition

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Recreation opportunities abound in our region! Here are a few of the best our area has to offer.

Lovers Key State Park, located near Fort Myers, Fla., includes quiet, secluded beaches. The beaches and keys around this area are a popular destination for weddings and honeymoons. (Lee County Fla. Visitor and Convention Bureau photo)

Chicago Rockford International Airport: Finding Beachtime Fun is a Breeze

While we endure gloomy, rainy days during our Midwestern spring, folks in sunny Florida enjoy warm weather and miles of pristine beaches. Spring and summer getaways to sandy Fort Myers, Fla., offer a glimpse of paradise to the active vacationer. And best of all, they’re easily accessible from Chicagoland, with Allegiant airlines’ direct flights from Chicago Rockford International Airport (RFD).

Flights arrive at the relaxed Charlotte County Airport, in Punta Gorda, Fla., about 30 minutes north of Fort Myers. Once inside the city, visitors will find numerous accommodations, from luxe resorts and vacation condominiums to wooded campgrounds and quiet bed-and-breakfasts. Many resorts include quiet cabins and bayside condos that offer sweeping views of Florida’s orange sunsets.

Those miles and miles of beaches are a popular attraction all year. By far, the area’s most popular destination is Fort Myers Beach, a nearly five-mile stretch of white sand on a barrier island. The water is just yards from some of the area’s most popular resorts. One of the most secluded beaches is just south on Estero Island, home of Lovers Key State Park. Not only does it boast quiet beaches and natural walking paths, but it’s a sanctuary for Gulf wildlife, including manatees, dolphins and a variety of birds.

These beaches are also a popular destination for the young-in-love. Destination weddings are welcomed at many venues, including the classic Gasparilla Inn & Club, on Gasparilla Island. This historic 1913 resort has several settings for beachside nuptials. Other popular spots include Casa Ybel Resort, on Sanibel Island, which was ranked tops by TheKnot.com. Even honeymooning couples can find plenty to do at these island getaways.

One of the area’s most popular destinations for shopping is Miromar Outlets, an outdoor mall that includes nearly 120 designer names such as Saks Fifth Avenue, Calvin Klein, J. Crew, Banana Republic and Juicy Couture. Antiques hunters will enjoy the regular yard sales that pop up along McGregor Boulevard.

Another popular shopping area, the colorful downtown of Fort Myers is an intimate walk back in history. Palm tree-lined brick streets and classic mid-20th-century architecture match the unique character of these antiques stores, theaters and locally owned shops. The Edison & Ford Winter Estates historical site is nearby.

Take a short drive outside Fort Myers, and there’s even more to explore. About an hour south is Naples, another popular spot for beaches, shopping and destination weddings. It’s also in reach of the Florida Everglades, accessible through a series of preserves. Spots like the Fakahatchee Stand Preserve State Park and the 729,000-acre Big Cypress National Preserve offer an up-close look at Florida’s natural swamps and exotic wildlife.

About two hours to the north of Fort Myers is the Tampa/St. Petersburg area, where you can also access direct flights to RFD airport. In Tampa, you’ll find a rich Latino cultural scene, unique museums and big-name sports teams.

This year’s baseball spring training is over, but fans know it’s never too early to look toward next year. Both the Boston Red Sox and the Minnesota Twins call Fort Myers their springtime home. After April, the Twins’ training stadium hosts the team’s minor-league affiliate, the Miracle Baseball Club.

Chicagoans enjoy Fort Myers so much that nearly five percent of all of this city’s spring visitors will come from our region, according to the Lee County Visitor & Convention Bureau. Nearly 122,000 Chicagoland visitors came in 2011.

Warm beaches and ocean breezes are just a flight away. To learn more about this destination, visit flyrfd.com and FortMyersSanibel.com.

 

Nature hikes and outdoor events are a natural part of any gathering. (Starved Rock Lodge)

 

For Gatherings, Don’t Just Meet — Retreat!

Looking for a great business retreat? Look no further than a state park.

In this May’s Association News magazine, J.D. Brown and Margaret Backenheimer write: “State parks are often more suitable for local or regional association meetings for several reasons, notably their affordability and accessibility.”

Starved Rock State Park and Lodge presents just such a place – affordable, accessible and unique. Conveniently located near I-80 and I-39, Starved Rock is less than 90 minutes from most Rockford and Chicagoland locations. Surrounded by 13 miles of scenic hiking trails, 18 canyons, several waterfalls and bluff views of the Illinois River Valley, Starved Rock is a naturally rejuvenating destination for business and association meetings.

Starved Rock Lodge provides free parking and Wi-Fi to all guests. The 69 sleeping rooms and 21 cabins are just a few steps away from the conference rooms, and there are several settings ideal for your business gathering, from 14 to 200 guests. An indoor pool complex and The Back Door Lounge provide relaxing places to meet up after business hours.

Banquet rooms are available for dining, with a variety of catering options (Ask about our gluten-free options and homemade ice cream, too!). Outdoor dining or cocktails on the veranda expand the meeting space, and present amazing views of the picturesque landscape.

During colder months, the fireplaces are glowing in the Lodge’s Great Hall and Main Dining Room, surrounded by the 1930s stone-and-log architecture constructed by the Civilian Conservation Corps. The Lodge was listed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1985, and the park was named a National Historic Landmark in 1966. Established as a state park in 1912, it’s one of Illinois’ oldest.

Inside “The Rock,” tension subsides when participants go beyond the boardroom for a hike through the canyons, or a hike atop Starved Rock. Given the rich history of this part of Illinois, it’s easy to find a new perspective on the achievements of our predecessors, and perhaps, a new outlook on business.

From wildflowers to wildlife, Starved Rock is a haven for restful sights and sounds, the sort that are often overlooked in the daily grind.

Teambuilding activities, such as scavenger hunts, can bring synergy to a group that hasn’t had time to bond during busy workdays.

The therapeutic power of nature has an amazing way of refreshing mind, body and soul.

To learn more about a meeting or retreat at Starved Rock Lodge, call (815) 220-7333 or visit starvedrocklodge.com.

 

The Peoria skyline. (Jerry Milam photo)

Will You Play in Peoria?

The vaudevillians may have been onto something when they famously asked, “Will it play in Peoria?” They realized Peoria’s strength as a miniature portrait of America.

While the vaudeville acts today are long gone, this city is still a vibrant, welcoming place, where new entertainment and new ideas thrive. It’s home to world-class corporations, a Division I university, numerous attractions and constant celebration. As a weekend playground, it offers a genuinely refreshing getaway from the familiar haunts of northern Illinois.

“We like to say it’s those authentic experiences of Peoria, because you’re not going to find those anywhere else,” says Lelonie Luft, marketing manager for the Peoria Area Convention & Visitors Bureau. “Experiences are one-of-a-kind here.”

Peoria’s vibrant, skyscraper-filled downtown is a good starting point, but its real gem is the riverfront. The latest stop is the Peoria Riverfront Museum, a Smithsonian-affiliated institution that opened in October 2012.

One interactive gallery celebrates the Illinois High School Association, with activities that allow kids to test their skills against the state’s high school athletic record-holders. Stargazers will marvel at the planetarium and its high-definition, fiber-optic display system, the local history room and a theater with a screen that stands five stories tall. The first all-digital theater built in the U.S., it offers both entertainment and educational possibilities.

“We had a physician come to us and say, ‘Can I perform a live surgical procedure through Skype, have you showcase it, and have my colleagues in the audience asking questions?’” says Nikki Cole, the museum’s vice president of development. “That’s the capability that this theater provides, being completely digital.”

Visitors will find many sustainable features, including local-sourced popcorn, on this LEED-certified museum’s “green tour.”

Next door is the newly opened Caterpillar Visitors Center, an interactive exhibit of massive earthmovers designed and built by this global company with its world headquarters in Peoria. Play inside real equipment, explore a life-size replica of the 2.5-story 797F mining truck and see how this massive equipment is designed and manufactured.

“We wanted to give back to the community and show them what we’re doing,” says Autumn Wickenhauser, marketing and communications manager for the visitors center. “We wanted to have a place for everyone to see the equipment we build. We have so many employees here who don’t get to see the final product that their work impacts every day.”

At night, Peoria’s downtown and riverfront come alive, inside intimate jazz bars and cozy pubs. Most weekends, people gather at outdoor events along the river, or inside the 110,000-square-foot civic center, a complex that includes an arena, conference center and performing arts center under one roof.

During warmer months, the Spirit of Peoria riverboat, an old-fashioned paddle wheeler, travels the Illinois River on themed cruises, sightseeing tours and overnight trips. Sometimes, out-of-towners even get a kick out of watching it’s Asian carp.

“We have them jump all over the boat,” says Capt. Alex Grieves. “It’s almost become a new tour attraction. We have people call them Illinois’ freshwater dolphins, because it’s like a dolphin show.”

As it always has, Peoria embraces its art scene. Downtown, the Contemporary Art Center of Peoria (CAC) combines gallery display areas, musical performance space and rentable art studios on the second and third floors of a renovated, turn-of-the-century warehouse. The center houses 20 resident artists.

The CAC is one place to see nearly 70 artists during the city’s First Friday events every month. Toraason Glass, owned by glassblower Hiram Toraason, welcomes visitors and tour groups to a renovated industrial building, located near the warehouse district. Toraason’s gallery is filled with sunlight, and he hosts demonstrations here.

“I just did a glassblowing class for someone’s birthday, and her friends said to her, ‘Wear jeans, shoes and cotton clothing, we’ll pick you up at 11,’ and they showed up here,” says Toraason. “My professor taught me that if you can bring people into the studio and show them glassmaking, even if they’re not going to buy anything, they’ll walk away with the experience.”

The area’s best collection of unique dining is at Peoria Heights. Along three blocks of this small northeast suburb, foodies will find everything from critically acclaimed, local-sourced dining at June, to upscale finger food served up at Salt and cozy pubs such as Publik House. Quaint shops, with everything from home décor to coffee and books, are mixed in between.

If you haven’t guessed it yet, Peoria loves its locally owned businesses. There’s a growing revival of storefronts along Main Street, between Bradley University and North Street, where new life is coming to a once-blighted neighborhood. The Main Statement, owned by two recent Bradley alums, sells colorful, eclectic gifts handcrafted by local artists.

“I always wanted to have a business,” says co-owner Danielle Auth. “I had moved to Austin [Texas] and saw so many businesses there that were owned by young people, so I came back to Peoria and started this.”

The outdoor enthusiast has plenty to enjoy, in a town that boasts one of Illinois’ largest park districts. Peoria Park District’s 9,000 acres include large forest preserves with bike trails, five public golf courses, neighborhood parks and a small zoo. Several privately owned golf clubs are open to the public.

On the western outskirts, along Route 8, Wildlife Prairie Park preserves Illinois’ native flora and fauna. Set on 2,000 acres, the park is home to 50 species of animals indigenous to Illinois, from cougars, wolves and bears to deer, elk and otter. A large meadow sustains a bison herd.

“And there are miles of guided trails to walk,” says Molly Waller, the park’s director of development. “I think that’s a huge selling point right now with families, to continue to have our young people learn how much fun it is to be outside, and to learn, and to walk. We want to get all of our children away from the screens and have authentic outdoor experiences.”

The Olde English Faire returned to the park this June 21-23. Each year, visitors are encouraged to wear costumes, as they experience re-enactors, authentic medieval food, a troupe of jousters and a Saturday gala fundraiser.

Also on the outskirts of town are three locally owned wineries: Mackinaw Valley, Willett’s and Kickapoo Creek. The latter has 10 medal-winning wines and is a popular place for social events, including about 50 weddings a year.

Back in town, visitors enjoy sweeping river vistas around Grandview Drive, a bluff-side road that President Theodore Roosevelt called “the most beautiful drive in the world.”

Along the riverfront, baseball fans enjoy the St. Louis Cardinals-affiliated Peoria Chiefs. And every winter, future hockey stars take the ice at the Peoria Civic Center, with the St. Louis Blues-affiliated Peoria Rivermen.

Fans can also see future sports stars at the city’s many high school state tournaments, which include finals in basketball, softball and baseball.

This is a city that knows how to make its own fun. Today, it’s not so much a question of whether a show will play in Peoria. It’s more like, will you play in Peoria?

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