Recreation & Destinations

NWQ Getaway Guide: Summer-Fall Edition

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

Stirring burgoo at the annual festival in Utica, Ill. (Kathy Casstevens-Jasiek photo)

Starved Rock Lodge: Prime Yourself for Fall Fun

BY Kathy Casstevens-Jasiek, marketing director, Starved Rock Lodge

It’s 9 a.m. on a Saturday. You’re looking for something different to do for fun. Can’t be much more than an hour’s drive… The answer is: a trip to Starved Rock State Park. And, if you leave by 9, you’ll arrive in Utica, Ill., before 10:30 a.m.

By far, the most popular season at Starved Rock is fall. There’s something extraordinary about nature in autumn, when the trees are aglow and the air is crisp. Spectators come from near and far to hike to Eagle Cliff and soak up the expansive views.

Begin your exploration with an easy hike to St. Louis Canyon. Be sure to park in the shortcut parking lot, located off Route 178, about 0.1 mile south of the park entrance. From the parking lot, it takes less than 15 minutes to hike into the canyon – just one of 18 inside the park. Some of these canyons have seasonal waterfalls that depend on rainfall, so it’s most exciting just after a heavy rain.

Even if the waterfall isn’t active, the canyon walls and sandstone boulders create a sight that’s totally unexpected in Illinois.

Head to Starved Rock Lodge, located inside the park, for lunch in the historic Main Dining Room, or enjoy outdoor dining on the Veranda, where the scenic view is the best around. Entertainment on the Veranda runs from 8-11 p.m. on weekends.

The Lodge’s “Art in the Park,” always on display, is the largest collection of chainsaw art in the Midwest. The recently added steel totem pole, in front of the hotel entrance, was commissioned to include Native American symbols of significance.

Or, you can lie upon the “Star Gazer” cement sculpture for the full effect. Located just outside the pool complex, it’s best visited at night by true stargazers. Did you know that Starved Rock has been named a Star Park because of its lovely black, starry night sky? The Chicago Astronomical Society teams up with the park each year for Astrofest, a chance to see meteor showers and unique happenings in the night sky. 

Starved Rock is easily accessible for visitors, and one of the easiest ways to see the park is on a Historic Trolley Tour, which departs every Saturday and Sunday at noon and 1:30 pm. This is a great way to relax after lunch and learn about the rich history of the Starved Rock area. Fall Colors Trolley Tours run throughout October. For those who prefer traveling by foot, guided hikes are now offered year-round on Saturdays and Sundays.

The food here is not to be missed. The Lodge now makes its own ice cream and gelato, with unique flavors. This fall, flavors might include pumpkin and spice or, for the grown-ups, Leinenkugel beer.

The annual Oktoberfest Dinners at Starved Rock Lodge aren’t to be missed, either. Offered on Oct. 12-13, and at the peak of Fall Colors Weekend on Oct. 19-20, these dinners are now available for reservations, by calling (815) 220-7386.

LaSalle County Historical Society’s Annual Burgoo Festival, on Oct. 13, expands this year to include a new Canal Market, with more vendors than ever. Burgoo draws thousands to sample the one-of-a-kind namesake stew under gorgeous autumn skies.

For details on these events and more fall fun at Starved Rock Lodge, go to starvedrocklodge.com.

The Presidential Suite at the newly remodeled Pere Marquette Hotel in Peoria, Ill.

A New Touch of Class in Downtown Peoria at Historic Pere Marquette Hotel

BY CHRIS LINDEN, MANAGING EDITOR/WEB EDITOR

Stylish and historic hotel accommodations are once more a fixture in downtown Peoria. After a $93 million renovation, the city’s classic Pere Marquette Hotel is once again open for business, now as a member of the Marriott family.

“I can’t say enough about how luxurious it is,” says Lelonie Luft, marketing manager for the Peoria Area Convention and Visitors Bureau. “It’s a nice fusion between the historic and the modern. It’s amazing how the modern overlaps with the historical character.”

Located in the heart of downtown, the Marquette is within blocks of the city’s biggest attractions: the Peoria Civic Center, Peoria Riverfront Museum, and Caterpillar Visitors Center, near Caterpillar’s world headquarters. The 12-floor hotel includes 286 guest rooms, four ballrooms and seven meeting spaces, with modern amenities and casual, contemporary furniture.

“The inside has what we call the ‘wow factor,’” says Gary E. Matthews, CEO of EM Properties, chief developer for the project. “We’ve preserved the marble staircase and the huge ballroom. We’ve built a big bar next to it, and brought in a large check-in area, because we believe there will be lots of bus arrivals.”

Inside the expansive lobby, guests discover the luxurious Great Room, with sofa seating and communal tables, and a full bar serving cocktails and appetizers. It’s an excellent location for working or socializing.

The hotel opened in 1927 and has hosted luminaries such as Ronald Reagan, John F. Kennedy, Teddy Roosevelt and Liberace. It had undergone several renovations throughout its lifetime, but was tired and outdated when it closed in 2011 for a thorough remodel. Because the building is on the National Register of Historic Places, Matthews went through painstaking care to preserve many of its historic elements.

Today, guests near the lobby can enjoy a large mural depicting French explorer Pere Marquette’s landing in Peoria, painted by famous muralist George Harding. Gorgeous crystal chandeliers adorn the ballroom.

The top few floors offer wide-open, luxurious suites, including the presidential and the bridal suites. The presidential suite shines with newly buffed floors and refurbished wood paneling, complemented by modern furniture.

On the 11th floor, a special concierge serves breakfast, happy hour fare and desserts to special guests, including Marriott Rewards Members. The outside views from these rooms aren’t to be missed.

Downstairs, Matthews has preserved a famous Pere Marquette tradition at the new Table 19, an upscale restaurant that serves locally sourced cuisine for three meals daily.

“There was a great table located in the hotel, where young men would ask their girlfriends to get married,” says Matthews. “It was a nice tradition, because then couples would go there for other events, like anniversaries, weddings and communions. So we renamed the three-meal restaurant for that, and we have a sign inside that explains its history.”

Construction continues on an adjoining 10-story Marriott Courtyard Hotel and parking deck. Opening next summer, the 116-room hotel will feature retail space and an overhead climate-controlled walkway to the Civic Center.

The Pere Marquette is one of only a few hotels in downtown Peoria, and it’s expected to provide a big boost to this busy neighborhood, says Luft. For out-of-towners, it’s both convenient and attractive.
“It’s the oldest, it’s the most prestigious, and it’s very prominent, so close to the Civic Center,” she says.

Refurbishing an historic structure is new territory for Matthews, who helped to develop several big-box structures across the river in East Peoria. He’s encouraged by his hometown’s enthusiasm for this historical hotel and its stylish new look.

“I get a lot of thrill out of seeing that first expression when people walk in,” says Matthews. “The reactions from the community have been very positive. The hotel has so much history, locally, and many people really appreciate what we’ve done.”

Walt Disney World, in Orlando, Fla., is a popular destination for fairytale honeymoons. (Visit Orlando photo)

Chicago Rockford International Airport: Honeymooning Magic Starts in Orlando

There’s a reason so many couples choose Orlando as the perfect starting point for their honeymoons. For one thing, it’s easily accessible with a nonstop flight from Chicago Rockford International Airport (RFD). And, whether they’re looking for total relaxation on the ocean, world-class theme parks, an ocean cruise or nature experience, Orlando is the ideal launch pad.

Naturally, Orlando’s best-known attractions are its giant amusement parks, especially Walt Disney World. Inside this 40-square-mile wonderland, brides and grooms enjoy fairytale honeymoons, with special vacation packages tailored just for them at one of the 25 themed resort hotels.

Along with two water parks, Disney offers four major theme parks: The Magic Kingdom, Animal Kingdom, Hollywood Studios and EPCOT (Environmental Prototype Community of Tomorrow). Themed restaurants on Disney properties abound, from fast casual to five-star, and there’s a long list of evening entertainment options, such as fireworks, multimedia and laser shows inside the parks, and attractions like Extreme Stunt Show, Cirque du Soleil and the House of Blues on Disney properties outside of the parks.

Beyond Disney, Universal Studios theme park is a paradise for movie and TV buffs, with attractions inspired by films and shows like “Shrek,” “Terminator,” “Harry Potter,” “Transformers” and “The Simpsons.” Enjoy more than 10 dining options, including Mel’s Drive-In, a re-creation of the famous restaurant from “American Graffiti.” And, for a Chicago experience away from home, enjoy the musical Blues Brothers Show with Jake and Elwood.

More adventure awaits at SeaWorld, where guests visit live animal attractions like Antarctica: Empire of the Penguin, Manta Aquarium and Shark Encounter; pre-register to swim with dolphins and touch these amazing and sociable creatures. See Beluga and killer whales perform, and ride thriller roller coasters like Journey to Atlantis.

Outside of the theme parks, Orlando is an interesting, international city in its own right, and a great launching pad for treks to the beach. About an hour northeast, coastal cities like Daytona Beach offer mile upon mile of sun and fun, with relaxed resorts and plenty of options for beachside nuptials. The state’s coast is dotted with quiet bed-and-breakfasts, beachside cottages and quaint inns. It also offers several cultural experiences, marine tours and endless forms of nightlife entertainment.

Newlyweds can also have a blast by traveling an hour east of Orlando to Cape Canaveral, home of the Kennedy Space Center and the NASA Visitors Center, which offers public tours of the space shuttle Atlantis; you can even lunch with an astronaut. Across the bay, NASA’s massive shuttle hanger is visible from Port Canaveral, where five cruiselines embark for destinations such as the Bahamas, Bermuda and Cozumel.

Onboard the Carnival Ecstasy, soak up the sun, dine like kings and enjoy fun activities along white-sand beaches; relax in full-service dining rooms and experience the evening entertainment. Onboard the massive Explorer of the Seas, from Royal Carribbean, enjoy several bars, a casino, a large theater and all kinds of activities.

Allegiant Airlines efficiently whisks you from Rockford to Orlando’s Sanford International Airport, a smaller airport on Orlando’s northeast side, with no fuss. From there, rent a car or take advantage of shuttle service to and from various resorts.

It’s never too early to start planning that honeymoon getaway. It all starts in Orlando, just a short, hassle-free flight from home.

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