A great weekend’s journey is right inside our region. Here are some of our area’s excellent places to play.
Galena: Where Fall is a Time for Homecoming
BY CHRIS LINDEN, EXECUTIVE EDITOR
Few places in northern Illinois can rival the fall scenery that’s a natural part of Galena’s charm. Nestled in the Driftless Area of northwest Illinois, this city is built right into the rolling hills.
“We have majestic views that you can’t see anyplace else in the state,” says Celestino Ruffini, director of sales and marketing for the Galena/Jo Daviess County Convention & Visitors Bureau. “The fall color usually peaks around the last week of September and the first week of October. But it’s always hard to tell – sometimes it comes early and sometimes it lingers a bit.”
Fall is a prime season for Galena, as its events calendar shows: Nearly every weekend from mid-September through November is packed with festivals and seasonal attractions.
The season kicks off Sept. 11 with the annual Ladies Getaway weekend. The area’s many resorts, bed-and-breakfasts, and shopping destinations cater especially to women from Friday through Sunday, with events, contests and shopping deals.
The next week, Sept. 19, Galena Cellars Vineyard & Winery celebrates the Fall Harvest & Art Festival with grape stomping, artist demonstrations, food and music. That same weekend, nearby Hanover, Ill., celebrates its annual Mallard Fest, a tribute to the Mallard Duck. Hanover is home to the world’s largest mallard hatchery.
Galena welcomes October with the ninth annual Oktoberfest, this year on Oct. 3. The celebration brings a day of German foods and beers, kids activities and polka aplenty.
On Oct. 10, Galena spotlights its artistic side with a weekend of arts and crafts fairs. The Galena Country Fair draws more than 150 vendors of original handmade arts and crafts. The following weekend, the 20 Dirty Hands Pottery Tour draws art enthusiasts to a self-guided tour of area pottery and sculpture studios in Galena and beyond. Many of these locations open to the public just a few times each year.
This is also an ideal time to tour some of the area’s beautifully preserved homes. In fact, a good portion of the city has been listed on the National Register of Historic Places.
“Main Street is like walking onto a movie set,” says Ruffini. “A lot of people are amazed to see that these buildings from the 19th century are so well-kept and they’re all filled with these unique small businesses.”
Once Halloween comes, ghosts and ghouls fill the Main Street for the annual Halloween Parade & Festival, one of the state’s largest evening parades. “We get about 10,000 people out here,” says Ruffini. “It’s spectacular to see all those people crammed into downtown Galena, and, of course, all of them are in costume.”
Outdoor activities slow down by November, but the weather isn’t enough to stop oenophiles from visiting during the annual Nouveau Weekend, this year from Nov. 20 to 21. Galena Cellars Vineyard & Winery’s celebration of the new harvest begins with a French-inspired tradition parading the fall’s first new vintage down Main Street.
While you’re in town, be sure to capture some of the fall color amidst Galena’s bluffs. One of the most spectacular views, says Ruffini, is at Horseshoe Mound, a public park just outside of town that looks down on Galena.
Fall is, in many ways, a sort of homecoming for this charming community and its neighbors.
“For a lot of people, this place feels like home, like America used to be,” says Ruffini. “It’s very nostalgic. We’re so caught up in the rush of life but this place slows us down.”
For more information, go to galena.org.
Savanna: Find Some Small-Town Fun on the Mississippi
BY LINDSEY GAPEN, ASSISTANT EDITOR
The remote city of Savanna, Ill., may be small, but it sure knows how to have fun. A haven for outdoors enthusiasts, Savanna is set on the Mississippi River. Whether you get there by car or by boat, you’re in for a gorgeous getaway.
Savanna is on The Great River Road, which follows Illinois Route 84. It’s also the beginning of The Great River Trail, an exhilarating 65-mile bicycle path that leads to the Quad Cities. Bikers, runners and walkers can marvel at the landscape while they explore the winding paths, says Pam Brown, executive director of the Savanna Chamber of Commerce.
Brown suggests stopping by the area’s many parks for hiking, biking, golfing, bird watching and picnicking. A favorite is the 2,500-acre Mississippi Palisades State Park, which offers scenic overlooks, deep ravines and rugged trails. Visitors may fish, boat, hunt and camp.
When it comes to unwinding, however, Brown prefers another spot. “Nothing is more relaxing than sitting in Marquette Park, watching the river roll along,” she says.
The riverside park hosts the annual Shadfly Festival, this year on Aug. 21. Whereas most festivals host a parade on the streets, this one happens on the water, with a parade of boats, each adorned in colorful lights. Expect live music, food and beverages, vendors and a raffle.
During the day, visitors can enjoy the Savanna Museum and Cultural Center’s memorable “Gallery of Civil War Soldiers” exhibit. The collection portrays the life’s work of local history teacher Gene Wright, who handmade more than 100 life-sized mannequins donned in Civil War-era clothing.
Each mannequin tells a unique story, from a 12-year-old drummer boy to a woman soldier disguised as a man. The museum is open on weekends only, from 11 a.m. to 4 p.m.
Continue walking through history in Savanna’s quaint downtown. Its shops provide some exciting finds, such as newly opened College Street Creations, specializing in handcrafted home decor, jewelry, uncommon trinkets and more. Plus, it’s fun for kids (and adults) to draw masterpieces on the chalkboard wall.
Just up the street, Frank Fritz from History Channel’s “American Pickers” sells plenty of old and unusual items inside his store, called Frank Fritz Finds. His collection is unique and ever-growing, and customers can sell him their old motorcycles, toys and antiques. Watch him on TV or meet him in person.
Also downtown, you’ll find many family-friendly restaurants. Manny’s Pizza caters to pizza and taco lovers. Cafe Crumbles and Kountry Kettle are highly regarded among locals for breakfast and lunch.
Just outside of town, the family-friendly biker destination Poopy’s Pub ‘n’ Grub now serves “poop pies,” (otherwise known as homemade pizza) along with burgers.
Who says small towns aren’t fun? Discover more about Savanna at VisitSavanna.com.
Sycamore Pumpkin Festival: 5 Days of Fall Fun
BY SARAH SOENKE, DEPUTY EDITOR
Nearly 18,000 residents enjoy the quiet community of Sycamore, the seat of DeKalb County. But every October, things are not so quiet. What started as a small-town pumpkin-decorating contest 53 years ago has grown into a city-wide celebration that draws visitors from across the Midwest and beyond.
This year is no exception.
Planned this year for Oct. 21-25, the 54th Sycamore Pumpkin Festival will include all sorts of attractions and events, ranging from pumpkin displays and craft shows to carnivals and the annual Sunday parade. Unlike many other fall festivals, this Sycamore staple has been organized and run by nonprofits in DeKalb County since Day One.
“It allows nonprofits, for that one weekend a year, to make some money by providing a service with a guaranteed participation and attendance of 100,000 to 200,000 people,” says Jerry Malmassari, president of this year’s festival committee.
The committee designs the festival to be as family-oriented as possible. The wide range of events, spread over five days, allows attendees of any age to find something of interest. There are carnivals just for teens and kiddies, but most activities allow family members to participate together.
About 28 organizations take part in the festival, not including those only in the parade. Sycamore’s Lions Club, once the sole festival organizer, returns every year, as well as the Kiwanis Club, local churches, the Sycamore Chamber of Commerce and more. This guarantees that visitors will see the entire town at work.
“It’s virtually all-encompassing of the city,” says Malmassari. “If you’re in Sycamore, you’re probably participating in something, somewhere on that weekend. It’s just that all-inclusive. It’s what it takes for everyone to put it together.”
This year’s theme, “Pumpkins in Disguise,” was submitted by Lana Walker, a student at Southeast School in Sycamore – students always come up with the theme.
A more recent festival tradition is honoring one “Friend of the Festival” each year. This year’s honoree is Michael Anderson, support services commander for the Sycamore Police Department. His contributions to the yearly event are invaluable, says Malmassari.
“He has his 8-to-5 regular hours, but if I need Michael at 9 p.m., I can call him and he’s right there,” says Malmassari. “He is a terrific member to work with.”
The festival started in 1956, when resident Wally Thurow, known as “Mr. Pumpkin,” displayed a few jack-o’-lanterns on his front lawn for some Halloween creative fun. The display grew each year, and when Thurow’s efforts were joined by the Sycamore Lions Club in 1962, the official Sycamore Pumpkin Festival was born. Over the decades, the festival has evolved into the town-wide celebration it is today.
“After more than 50 years of putting on the festival, we have a formula that works for us, so it’s fairly consistent from year to year,” says Jerome Perez, secretary of this year’s festival committee.
To view the list of events and festival map, visit sycamorepumpkinfestival.com.
Rockford: Exploring Rockford’s Hidden Gems
BY LINDSEY GAPEN, ASSISTANT EDITOR
Hidden gems are scattered everywhere throughout Rockford, making it a fun place to explore. From the lush greenery at Rock Cut State Park to the eclectic boutiques within the Edgebrook shopping district, there’s no shortage of exciting activities to engage in this season.
Rockford has a big-city feel, but its best attractions come at a reasonable price, says Andrea Mandala, marketing and communications manager at the Rockford Area Convention and Visitors Bureau. She appreciates how Rockford has a variety of family-friendly activities every day of the week, and how the area is enjoying an urban renaissance.
“Our region is truly on the rise, with a resurgence of activity and change happening each day,” Mandala says. “I love that our downtown is a cultural hotbed for artists and local entrepreneurs to live out their passions. It’s always an adventure exploring any of our parks, paths and recreational sites. The local brewery and foodie scenes continue to get recognized on top lists throughout the country, and our family-friendly museums and attractions are great places to help tell the stories of our history and the discoveries we’ve made along the way.”
At the top of Mandala’s must-do list is Anderson Japanese Gardens, on Spring Creek Road. One of the top-rated Japanese gardens in North America, these 12 acres of tranquil landscape contain meticulously placed rocks, trees and paths designed to re-energize visitors.
All summer, garden visitors can experience a live music series on Tuesday evenings at 5 p.m. The public is invited to bring a picnic dinner or purchase food from on-site vendors, and enjoy listening to musical performers in a picturesque setting.
Adventure is all around during the summertime, whether it’s plunging down waterslides at Magic Waters Waterpark, off Interstate 90, or wakeboarding at West Rock Wake Park, on the city’s west side.
Mandala recommends biking, canoeing or fishing at Rock Cut State Park, with an entrance off Illinois Route 173. Across the park’s more than 3,000 acres, visitors can spot foxes, deer, muskrats, woodchucks and other furry friends amongst the abundant hiking and horseback riding trails. More than 270 campsites provide easy overnight accommodations.
The weekly Friday Night Flix series provides relaxing evenings all summer long at Davis Park, in downtown Rockford. Bring a blanket or lawn chair and enjoy family-friendly films such as “Despicable Me,” “101 Dalmatians” and “Toy Story 3.” Films start at 7 p.m. and admission is free.
Further up the Rock River, the historic Prairie Street Brewhouse hosts Dinner on the Dock every Thursday from 5 to 10 p.m. Held on the docks outside the Brewhouse, this weekly party includes the Brewhouse’s craft beers, local musical acts and delicious food.
“Watching someone relax and sing along at Dinner on the Dock is truly one of my all-time favorite experiences,” Mandala says.
To learn more about summertime fun in Rockford, visit gorockford.com.
The Quad Cities: Make Memories Around the Waterfront
BY LINDSEY GAPEN, ASSISTANT EDITOR
Fun times await you where the Rock and Mississippi rivers meet. The Quad Cities are a watery playground comprised of five communities: Moline, East Moline and Rock Island in Illinois, and Davenport and Bettendorf in Iowa. From our region, take Interstate 88 to reach the area quickly, or weave around the Mighty Mississippi’s east bank on the more scenic Great River Road.
The John Deere Pavilion in downtown Moline is a must-see attraction the whole family will enjoy, says Jessica Waytenick, public relations and marketing manager for the Quad Cities Convention and Visitors Bureau. There are interactive exhibits and engaging displays. “And it’s fun to climb on the equipment,” she says.
Another of Waytenick’s favorite destinations is the Skybridge, in downtown Davenport. More than a pedestrian overpass, this cable-stayed bridge that runs 50 feet above River Drive affords a panoramic view of the Mississippi River, and is lit by a kaleidoscope of colors at night.
When it comes to accommodations, several unique hotels provide comfortable lodgings. For a historic setting, Hotel Blackhawk in downtown Davenport celebrates its 100th birthday this year. Recently renovated to match its former glory, this landmark destination is plush with modern amenities.
Another Davenport highlight is Modern Woodmen Park, where you can catch a baseball game with the Quad Cities River Bandits, a minor-league affiliate of the Houston Astros. But baseball isn’t the park’s only attraction.
“Along with the new Ferris wheel that stands 105 feet above the playing field, there’s a longer dual zip line, rock climbing wall, Drop’N Twist vertical ride and the Space Camp gyroscope ride,” Waytenick says. “It was voted the best minor league park in America.”
There’s no shortage of riverside restaurants to satisfy your appetite. The Captain’s Table in Moline is known for its delicious seafood, steak and spirits, a made-from-scratch approach to dining, and incredible views of the Mississippi. Waytenick also recommends Front Street Brewery in downtown Davenport, one of Iowa’s oldest brewpubs and a cozy joint known for its burgers, beer and outdoor seating.
Playing in or on the water is a huge part of summertime in the Quad Cities. A variety of river cruises, such as the Channel Cat Water Taxi and the Celebration Belle, move travelers up and down the river daily.
But don’t fret if you’re a land lover. An abundance of biking, walking and hiking trails are located throughout the area’s parks and forest preserves, including the Black Hawk State Historic Site in Rock Island. The rolling hills at this wooded park were once home to American Indians and early settlers.
The area’s vibrant cultural scene includes gems such as Genesius Guild, an outdoor theater in Rock Island that welcomes an unusual array of arts. Experience professional ballet, opera in English, Greek tragedy in mask, Greek comedy in contemporary re-writes, Shakespearean comedies and tragedies, and more at Lincoln Park.
Outdoor concerts and many festivals also commence during late summer. More than 100 artists from across the Midwest gather in downtown Davenport for the annual Beaux Arts Fair Sept. 12-13. Celebrate the cultures of Ireland and Greece during the Celtic Festival and Highland Games, and at the Our Big Fat Greek Festival, which both happen Sept. 18-19. Take to the skies during the Quad City Balloon Festival Sept. 25-27.
Explore more information about the Quad Cities at VisitQuadCities.com.
Starved Rock Lodge & Conference Center: Rakin’ in the Autumn Fun at Starved Rock
BY KATHY CASSTEVENS, MARKETING DIRECTOR, STARVED ROCK LODGE
As summer draws to a close, the pace of life slows down, along with the number of times you have to mow the lawn. The minute a change of seasons is in the air, it’s time to start thinking about your next vacation getaway. Starved Rock State Park & Lodge, in Utica, Ill., offers great events with close-to-home-but-worlds-away appeal.
There’s no better way to explore one of the most scenic places in Illinois than by hiking at Starved Rock State Park. Guided hikes, which travel about 4.3 miles round trip, are offered each weekend and include lunch. If you’re up for hiking all the trails in one day, sign up for the MegaHike on Sept. 26 and 27. Hike-a-Palooza is a three-day marathon of hiking that covers three area parks and more.
The Veranda of Starved Rock Lodge provides an amazing view and a variety of lunch and dinner options from an outdoor grill. Live music adds to the fun every Friday and Saturday night (starting at 8 p.m.) through Labor Day and on select dates into fall.
Autumn puts fall-themed fun “on tap” at the historic 1930s-era Lodge with a kegtapping on Sept. 27 that includes German music by the Doodledorfers Band. A great menu of German beer, wine and music is featured at two upcoming Oktoberfest Dinners slated for Oct. 10 and 11 (during Burgoo Festival Weekend) and Oct. 17 and 18 (during Fall Colors Weekend).
Fall Colors Trolley Tours are offered on Mondays and Saturdays so that leaf lovers can get their fill of fall foliage before the colorful array disappears. Land & Water Cruises on the Belle of the Rock offer a riverboat adventure mixed with a history tour of the area. Wine lovers should mark their calendars for the Vintage Illinois Wine Festival, on Sept. 19 and 20, held at nearby Matthiessen State Park’s River Area.
Storytelling is performed by a campfire every Saturday in October at 7 p.m., just steps away from the main lodge, at the Fox Ridge programming stage. Musical tribute shows bring renditions of Buddy Holly on Sept. 14 and 15, The Legacy Girls (a 1950s show) on Sept. 28 and Patsy Cline on Oct. 5 and 6.
Whatever time of year you visit, you’ll be greeted with a warm welcome and reminded that Starved Rock Lodge truly is a place where the past is always present.
For tickets to special events, call (815) 220-7386. See more events online at starvedrocklodge.com.
Rocky Waters Vineyard & Winery: A Special Cabin Nestled Among the Vines
BY SARAH SOENKE, DEPUTY EDITOR
Tucked within the rolling countryside of southern Jo Daviess County, a fisherman’s cabin offers a secluded escape with scenic views of Rocky Waters Vineyard & Winery, 2003 W. Hanover Road, Hanover, Ill.
The log cabin sits on the shores of a five-acre stocked lake within the property’s 112 acres of picturesque hills and deep valleys. First built in 2000 as temporary housing for owners Jared and Phyllis Spahn, while they built their vineyard and winery, it was later opened for private rentals after the completion of the main lodge in October 2007. The Spahns now rent out their charming former home.
Everyone from single couples to extended families can enjoy the rustic accommodations and scenery, with reservations booking up around a year or so in advance. One couple has returned to the cabin every year since it opened, and even got married and had their first child baptized on the property.
“They’re almost like family,” says Jared Spahn. “It’s been going on more than five years now. They love it here.”
With a spacious deck overlooking the lake, the cabin includes a full kitchen, private master bedroom and two large private bathrooms. Up in the loft, two additional bunk beds, with full-sized and twin-sized mattresses, allow up to 10 guests to sleep comfortably. Reservations are available through a variety of rental packages, all with a two-night minimum stay.
Lush views surround the location in every direction, with bending creeks and streams connecting to the property-side lake for fishing and swimming. Only a 6-minute walk away, the main lodge is perched on a bluff overlooking the 25-acre vineyard. The grand building regularly hosts wine tastings, music on the deck, weddings, corporate services and private parties year-round.
“The views from the lodge have been featured in Hollywood films for three years, starting in 2012,” says Jared.
The vineyard and winery is best known for its award-winning wines, of course. Two bottles of each of the 14 Rocky Waters wines, 100 percent from grapes grown on the property, are stocked inside the cabin for an additional, but discounted, extra charge.
In the past five years, each wine has won a medal, totaling more than 40 awards, 32 of them from international competitions.
Jared and Phyllis established the vineyard in 1997 and have since been growing the day-to-day business with the help of their children and grandchildren. In addition to its many awards, the winery and vineyard has been recognized by Midwest Living Magazine as one of the “Top Places to Visit” for five consecutive years.
For more information and to check availability, go to rockywaters.net/cabin. Reservations can be made over the phone by calling (815) 591-9706.