Recreation & Destinations

NWQ Autumn Getaway Guide

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A great weekend’s journey is right inside our region. Here are some of our area’s excellent places to play.

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The National Mississippi River Museum & Aquarium in Dubuque is home to several displays and collections of aquatic wildlife. The century-old Hotel Julien Dubuque marries modern amenities with the city’s historic charm. (Dubuque Convention & Visitors Bureau photos)

Dubuque, Iowa: Experience Something Old and New

Historic charm and fall foliage are drawing visitors to Dubuque, Iowa, this autumn. This Mississippi River town is one bridge away from both Illinois and Wisconsin and their stunning vistas.

“We’re fortunate to have a landscape that allows for unique vantage points,” says Taylor Cummings, the director of marketing at the Dubuque Convention and Visitors Bureau. “Whether you’re riding to the top of Fenelon Place Elevator, the world’s shortest and steepest scenic railway, or enjoying the fall colors at Eagle Point Park, there are many gorgeous views overlooking the Mighty Mississippi River and the tri-state area.”

In addition to these lofty views, visitors enjoy exploring the National Mississippi River Museum & Aquarium, at the Port of Dubuque. The museum is home to interactive displays, a 3-D/4-D theater and a wide collection of native river wildlife. Guided tours are available.

“Creatures in the aquarium come from up and down the Mississippi River,” Cummings says. “You can see octopuses, river otters, alligators, sea turtles and so many other animals.”

Locals and travelers alike look forward to the Dubuque Food and Wine Festival, happening this year from Nov. 6-8 at various locations throughout the city. Not only will attendees experience the culinary creations of local establishments, but they’ll also enjoy live music and in-depth insight from gourmet food experts.

“You can experience wine and small-plate tasting on Friday, a soup-off competition on Saturday, and cocktails, pastries and more on Sunday,” Cummings says. “One of the participating establishments, Stone Cliff Winery, is also providing tours throughout the day on Saturday.”

Festivalgoers can opt to purchase a weekend package that includes overnight accommodations at Hotel Julien Dubuque, one of the area’s most elegant lodgings. The century-old boutique hotel marries modern amenities with the historic charm of the Old Main District. No visit is complete without enjoying the delectable cuisine at the on-site eatery, Caroline’s Restaurant, which serves steak, seafood and pasta during dinner hours.

November marks the beginning of Dubuque’s Winter Farmers’ Market, operating downtown from 9 a.m. to noon every Saturday morning throughout the season. Despite the dip in temperatures, local vendors shelter indoors to sell everything from fruits, vegetables, jams, baked goods, cheeses, meats and honey to lotions, oils, soaps, candles and other household items.

“Even though summer has passed, there’s still plenty of fresh produce to delight in at the local farmers’ market,” Cummings says.

A diverse selection of other attractions and activities awaits, such as the Dubuque Museum of Art, showcasing more than 2,000 works; Park Farm Winery, a chateau-style retailer with an 11-acre vineyard; and Dubuque River Rides, a steamboat excursion that cruises down the Mississippi River.

“There’s so much to do in Dubuque, a city that’s steeped in history,” Cummings says. “It’s Iowa’s first formed community, and the historic charm can’t be replicated. Everywhere you turn, you can see touches of Dubuque’s heritage. When you add our modern amenities and revitalized spirit, Dubuque is the perfect combination of old and new.”

Lena, Ill., is a classic Midwestern small town with unique shopping opportunities and a charming downtown.

Lena, Ill., is a classic Midwestern small town with unique shopping opportunities and a charming downtown.

Lena, Ill.: Forget Your Troubles in This Vibrant Village

If you’re looking for an unforgettable day, look no further than Lena, Ill. This gem of a village is tucked between the rolling hills and prairie flatlands of northwest Illinois, with a plethora of fun activities to experience.

“Lena is a perfect ‘pull off’ stop to get a memorable taste of local beer, food, crafts and authentic northern Illinois atmosphere,” says Tyson Terhune, the village’s coordinator of economic development and support services. “Our parks, recreation, shopping and entertainment are just as much geared toward local and regional residents as toward our friends passing through for a day, or even a couple of days.”

The village’s crown jewel is the Lena Brewing Company, which hosts guided tours every Friday, Saturday and Sunday. Visitors receive three beer samples and a souvenir pint glass with their tour, which wraps up in the brewery’s taproom.

“The Lena brewery has a unique atmosphere,” Terhune says. “They have a variety of specialty brews crafted on site, as well as other regionally crafted brews on tap. It’s a great first stop before seeing the rest of our shops and restaurants in town.”

Terhune highly recommends a visit to Lena Mercantile, a literal treasure trove where more than 40 vendors sell an eclectic mix of goods, from antiques, collectibles and custom woodcrafts to candles and even a wide array of chocolates. Located on the corner of Illinois Route 73 and West Railroad St. in downtown Lena, the store is open daily from 9:30 a.m. to 5:30 p.m.

An eatery located inside serves soups, salads and sandwiches Monday through Saturday, from 11 a.m. to 2 p.m. Enjoy the sandwich of the day or a regular menu item before indulging in homemade pie, cheesecake and other desserts. There’s also fresh-roasted coffee.

“Lena Mercantile’s cafe has an intriguing atmosphere,” Terhune says. “It’s located in the same building where regional artists, collectors and crafters show and sell their merchandise. It’s a delicious place for lunch after browsing through the shop, which sells everything from signed baseball cards to movie memorabilia.”

Other must-see stops include the village’s 109-year-old water tower – a steel tank set atop limestone blocks and red bricks that rises 100 feet high. Take a drive down the Stagecoach Trail, also known as West Galena Road, and cruise on some of the highest terrain in Illinois.

“Our water tower is on the National Register of Historic Places,” Terhune says. “We have a dedication to clean living in Lena, which is evident by our wind farm on Stagecoach Trail. You have the opportunity to see the clean energy up close, surrounded by the fall colors.”

Ample opportunities for camping are nearby at Lena KOA Campground, located one mile south of downtown, and Lake Le-Aqua-Na State Park – only a couple of miles north. Golf courses tailored to all skill sets are found throughout the area.

Before you depart, be sure to check out the award-winning AJ’s Lena Maid Meats. The butchery is nationally known for its beef sticks, jerky and other high-quality products – all of which come from locally raised livestock.

“We have a strong local foods ethic in Lena,” Terhune says. “You’ll find plenty of treats to enjoy when you visit, in addition to exciting activities that’ll give you memories that last a lifetime.”

Anderson Japanese Gardens, one of the nation’s top-rated Japanese gardens, comes alive with vibrant colors this fall.

Anderson Japanese Gardens, one of the nation’s top-rated Japanese gardens, comes alive with vibrant colors this fall.

Go Rockford: Fill up on Your Favorite Fall Traditions

Whether you’re a traveler or a local, an assortment of indoor fun and outdoor beauty are waiting for you in Rockford. Autumn is an especially busy time for the region.

“Fall is a great time of year to get outside and explore the various paths, forest preserves, gardens and prairies in our region,” says Andrea Mandala, marketing and communications manager at the Rockford Area Convention & Visitors Bureau. The leaves are changing into rich autumn colors and the warm Indian summer temperatures give people a chance to adventure outdoors. The region is nicknamed the ‘Forest City’ and ‘City of Gardens’ because of the lush trees, flowers and well-maintained grounds that surround us.”

A few ideal places to experience fall beauty are Rock Cut State Park, located on Illinois Route 173, Klehm Arboretum & Botanic Gardens, on South Main Street, and Anderson Japanese Gardens, on Spring Creek Road. The natural landscapes at all three locations come alive with autumn color, and each has walking paths that are perfect for exercise or leisurely strolls.

The crisp autumn air means the area’s apple orchards are in full harvest, too.

“Edwards Apple Orchard West in Winnebago County and Curran’s Apple Orchard in Rockford are both worth a visit,” Mandala says. “Each orchard provides families the chance to create fun traditions throughout the fall season.”

Edwards Apple Orchard West carries 18 varieties of locally grown apples, apple cider donuts, freshly made cider and other treats such as raspberries and pumpkins. There’s also a children’s play area. Meanwhile, at Curran’s Apple Orchard, families can find fresh-baked apple pie, ginormous caramel apples, award-winning cider and other excellent eats. Enjoy riding on the hay wagon, climbing on straw bales, exploring mini-mazes and experiencing many other recreational activities while you’re there.

Off the farm and in the city, the Rockford region boasts a wide range of culinary delights, hailing from many cultural backgrounds.

“We have a number of delicious locally owned eateries,” Mandala says. A few of her favorites are GreenFire Restaurant Bar & Bakery, Social Urban Bar & Restaurant, Abreo, Alchemy at Giovanni’s Restaurant & Convention Center, Octane InterLounge, Prairie Street Brewhouse and Fresco at the Gardens.

“These places offer locally sourced foods and outstanding farm-to-fork seasonal options,” she adds.

Many of these eateries are located in and around downtown Rockford, where visitors will find a growing presence of weekend gatherings, small businesses and creative artists.

“These local efforts are enhancing the culture of downtown Rockford,” Mandala says. “A community-focused beautification initiative and the variety of public art efforts have helped to transform and create a downtown that is a fun entertainment hub.”

The entertainment carries inside as the weather cools down, with exciting performances coming soon to the glamorous Coronado Performing Arts Center downtown. Music sensation Jackson Browne performs on Nov. 13, and Rockford’s very own Cheap Trick returns to its hometown on Nov. 21.

“From big headliners to local artisans and makers in our region, people can enjoy the captivating and authentic talent and creativity offered in Rockford,” Mandala says.

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The grand fireplace at Starved Rock Lodge is a cozy place to gather during the winter.

Starved Rock Lodge: Discover Santa’s Secret this Holiday Season

BY KATHY CASSTEVENS, MARKETING DIRECTOR, STARVED ROCK LODGE

The news from the North Pole is that Black Friday is a thing of the past! Santa and Starved Rock Lodge, in Utica, Ill., agree that since gifts are available year-round at the Starved Rock Gift Shop, there’s no need to face the crowds at the mall this Christmas season.

“The day after Thanksgiving should be spent having fun and hiking at Starved Rock State Park,” says Angie Kelly, retail director. “We’ve even created a Top 10 Gift List to make it even easier to find the perfect presents. Plus, we now have online shopping for select items.”

Trailheads Concessions, located at the Visitor Center inside Starved Rock Lodge, is stocked with T-shirts, coffee mugs, hoodies and more. Personal shoppers are available by calling the Lodge’s Gift Shop at (815) 220-7320.

Shopping aside, Starved Rock Lodge inspires the spirit of the holiday. A beautifully decorated lodge nestled in one of Illinois’ most dramatic state parks, this getaway provides a cozy and scenic escape where you can welcome winter.

As soon as cleanup is finished from the Lodge’s Thanksgiving Buffet, the decorating team takes over and transforms the Lodge into a wonderland of garland, lights, wreaths and decorations.

Even the trolleys are spruced up for the holidays. Christmas Lights Trolley Tours run every night from Dec. 12 to 23, from 6 to 8 p.m. The trolley drivers lead guests past many local decorations, and they do so while singing a variety of Christmas carols.

Breakfast with Santa is a favorite event for children. Set this year for Saturday, Dec. 19, this special gathering brings Santa to the Great Hall and its grand fireplace, where the little ones can tell their Christmas wishes to Saint Nick and take a photo with him.

One of the biggest nights of the year, for the grown-ups, is the Lodge’s annual New Year’s Eve Party. As the Lodge rings in the new year, the entire Great Hall will be decorated in a Roaring 1920s theme. Guests can enjoy appetizers, an open bar, two bands for dancing, an elaborate dinner buffet with desserts, champagne at midnight and more. The Lodge is offering special packages that ensure you’re just steps away from your hotel room when 2016 makes its debut.

Historic Trolley Tours and guided hikes through the woods are offered each weekend through December. Music in the Back Door Lounge is on tap every Friday from 8 to 11 p.m. Wine tasting is a favorite event every Saturday, in the Hotel Lobby, from 4 to 5 p.m. Massage therapists are available by appointment – it’s the perfect way to relax before or after a swim in the Lodge’s indoor pool.

Families choose to meet at Starved Rock over the holidays because of its close-to-home-but-worlds-away location near the crossroads of the Midwest, right by the juncture between Interstate 80 and Interstate 39.

For complete details of holiday-season activities and events, visit StarvedRockLodge.com.

Granite Peak has 72 runs of various difficulty for skiing and snowboarding. (Granite Peak photo)

Granite Peak has 72 runs of various difficulty for skiing and snowboarding. (Granite Peak photo)

Wausau, Wis.: Friendly Faces and Exhilarating Recreation

In the heart of Wisconsin, surrounded by woods, lakes and hills, the city of Wausau awaits visitors who are eager for adventure. The area’s crown jewel is Granite Peak Ski Resort, located in Rib Mountain State Park off of Interstate 39. With high-speed lifts servicing 72 runs on a 700-foot mountain, Granite Peak is the perfect place for an action-packed getaway.

Whether it’s skiing, snowboarding or relaxing on a heated patio, visitors have ample opportunity at Granite Peak to enjoy some snowy fun. The memories from a Wausau getaway are sure to be exhilarating, says Vicki Baumann, the general manager of Granite Peak.

“It’s just beautiful here,” Baumann says. “We’re really lucky to have Wausau at the base of the mountain. The people are extra friendly, and the town offers great shopping and dining. When you ride our lifts to the top of the mountain, you can get a gorgeous view of Lake Wausau that you’ll always remember. We always say Granite Peak is easy to get to, but hard to leave.”

Granite Peak offers many deals throughout the fall and winter months. Family packages, college-student discounts and child discounts are available throughout the season. Most people visit Granite Peak for many days in a row, Baumann says. Throughout the season, visitors can enjoy fireworks, a delicious dinner of brats and asparagus at an outdoor grill, horse-drawn wagon rides and other fun activities.

“Granite Peak is a great place for more than just a day trip,” Baumann says. “You can ski all day, eat a great dinner in the city, maybe catch a movie. One great place to stay is Jefferson Street Inn because it’s within walking distance of so many great places.”

Jefferson Street Inn, located at 201 Jefferson St., offers a complimentary shuttle ride from the hotel to Granite Peak. Lodgers can take advantage of cozy fireplaces, full kitchens and a dedicated guest service that’s knowledgeable about the area. The onsite restaurant, City Grill Bistro, serves a true Wisconsin fish fry every Friday that’s “a tradition you should experience,” says Deb Rice, Jefferson Street Inn’s general manager.

“There’s also great entertainment in town,” Rice says. “Many bars in the area have live music, the shopping on 3rd Street is top-notch, and one block away from our front door is the start of a fantastic river walk.”

Rice additionally recommends visiting the Leigh Yawkey Woodson Art Museum, where sculpture-filled gardens and nature-based artwork are viewable for free admission. The Center for Visual Arts is another top pick, with its impressive showcase of local and regional artwork.

A trip to Wausau is likely to result in a desire to return, Rice says.

“It’s one of the most fantastic places in the Midwest. Wausau is a quaint town with luxurious amenities.”

Baumann agrees, adding that Granite Peak is fortunate to have a wonderful city at the base of the mountain.

“Everyone is so friendly and welcoming that it’s no wonder why people love Wausau,” Baumann says.

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