Recreation & Destinations

NWQ Getaway Guide, Spring Edition

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A great weekend’s journey is hours away. Here are some excellent places to visit.

Enjoy some authentic Italian Cuisine at da Baffone Cucina Italiana in Crystal Lake, Ill.

Enjoy some authentic Italian Cuisine at da Baffone Cucina Italiana in Crystal Lake, Ill.

Feel Like An Old Friend in McHenry County

By Jermaine Pigee, deputy editor

You don’t have to spend hours on the road to experience a weekend getaway.

Nestled between Chicago and Rockford, the communities of McHenry County, Ill., offer everything you need for a brief, yet fun-filled retreat.

“Whether you’re visiting McHenry County from 10 states away or 10 minutes away, you’ll be able to enjoy all of the hometown charm found in McHenry County’s welcoming towns, which are filled with unique shops, restaurants and attractions,” says Kristine Austin, sales and marketing manager for Visit McHenry County.

Beginning in May, the Woodstock Farmers Market returns to the Woodstock Square. Now in its 30th year, this farmers market is home to 40 weekend vendors and 30 weekday vendors. You can find organic homegrown produce, fruits, baked goods, meats and eggs – among other things – each Tuesday and Saturday, from May through October, from 8 a.m. to 1 p.m. From November to April, the farmer’s market is open on the first and third Saturday of the month, from 9 a.m. to 1 p.m., at the nearby McHenry County Fairgrounds.

The McHenry County Conservation District is an ideal place to experience the great outdoors. With more than 25,000 acres of open land on 33 sites, the conservation district maintains some 115 miles of hiking trails, 19 fishing sites, 20 miles of horse trails and 18 sites with picnic shelters.

“There’s no better place to get outside and enjoy nature in the spring,” Austin says.

If you want to brush up on your cooking skills, enroll in a cooking class at Loyola Retreat and Ecology Campus, in Woodstock, on April 1 and 29, and May 12 and 13.

“In April, they will be hosting a cheese and wine pairing as well as a Chilean wine and food pairing,” Austin says. “In May, you can choose from a Wild West food and wine pairing and participate in a knife skills class.”

If learning to cook isn’t your thing, you can check out a wide variety of restaurants in McHenry County. Port Edward Restaurant, in Algonquin, maintains a reputation for upscale dining, but its many nautically themed dining areas are just as well-known.

Da Baffone Cucina Italiana, in downtown Crystal Lake, is a family-owned Italian restaurant boasting Old-World recipes and fresh ingredients.

DC Cobb’s Tavern & Eatery, in Woodstock, is a pub setting best known for its creative half-pound burgers, many of which pay homage to the city’s history. Try the Orson Welles, which has a fried mozzarella wedge, Italian sausage and marinara; or take your chance on the Dick Tracy, with grilled onion, Swiss cheese, mushrooms and bacon served between two grilled cheese sandwiches.

If you’re tired from a busy and adventurous day and need a place to stay, check out Crane Hollow Bed & Breakfast in Harvard. This 40-acre retreat offers an opportunity to indulge in a peaceful, natural environment that’s within reach of local entertainment.

“Here in McHenry County, we want you to feel like you’re one of our old friends,” Austin says. “And since we’re old friends, we want you to know everything about our little slice of Chicagoland.”

For more information on these and other attractions around McHenry County, go to visitmchenrycounty.com.

Explore hands-on art and science exhibits at Discovery Center Museum, in Rockford.

Explore hands-on art and science exhibits at Discovery Center Museum, in Rockford.

Rockford: Big-City Setting, Small-Town Vibe

By Jermaine Pigee, deputy editor

If you want to experience the feel of a big city, but you enjoy the low-cost, no-hassle activities of a smaller town, you’ve come to the right place.

World-renowned museums, parks and gardens, local shops and restaurants make Rockford appealing to many a weekend traveler.

“There’s plenty to do in our region and I love giving recommendations to travelers, visitors and residents looking for local fun things to do and places to unwind,” says Andrea Mandala, marketing & communications manager for the Rockford Area Convention & Visitors Bureau.

Start your Saturday with breakfast at Stockholm Inn, 2420 Charles St. Popular with both locals and out-of-towners, this restaurant’s menu and decor echo Rockford’s Swedish heritage. In addition to classic American cuisine, Stockholm Inn cooks up Swedish pancakes with imported ligonberries, Swedish meatballs and other Swedish favorites.

Next, take the kids to Burpee Museum of Natural History, 737 N. Main St., where you can explore award-winning exhibits including a display of “Jane,” a nearly complete juvenile tyrannosaurus discovered by the museum’s researchers in the Badlands of Montana. It’s been called one of the 10 most important dionsaur discoveries in the past century.

For lunch, hop across the river to Fresco at the Gardens, 318 Spring Creek Road. Located at Anderson Japanese Gardens, Fresco features fresh, organic and locally grown food. The menu includes sandwiches, salads, soups, grass-fed beef, traditional breakfast fare and a coffee and juice bar.

While you’re there, explore Anderson Japanese Gardens and witness the splendor of springtime. This 12-acre, authentic Japanese garden is routinely recognized as one of the best in North America.

Visitors can also explore Frank Lloyd Wright’s Laurent House, 4646 Spring Brook Road, which is the only building the famed architect ever designed for a person with a disability. Kenneth and Phyllis Laurent lived in the home from 1952 until early 2012, when it was acquired by a private foundation and added to the National Register of Historic Places.

A great way to end the day is to watch the sun set over the river while catching a bite and drinking a cold craft brew at Prairie Street Brewing Co., 200 Prairie St., located downtown.

Your second day of exploring Rockford begins at Lydia’s Café, 1710 Rural St. Fresh food, inventive weekend specials and giant buttermilk pancakes have kept locals coming to this neighborhood location for many years.

Spend the remainder of your morning at Nicholas Conservatory & Gardens at Sinnissippi Park, 1354 N. Second St. Situated along the bank of the Rock River, this destination brings the tropics to the Midwest with an 11,000-square-foot plant exhibition area complete with water features, seating areas and sculptures in a tropical plant setting.

Spend your afternoon at Klehm Arboretum, 2715 S. Main St., with a one hourdocent tour, which highlights the gardens, shrub and tree collections, seasonal blossoms and natural history.

End your time in Rockford with dinner at Abreo, 515 E. State St., which is an American tapas restaurant and bar emphasizing creative small dishes.

“The Rockford region is a robust community filled with genuine people and incredible places to discover,” Mandala says.

In addition to large, mounted animals, the Midwest Museum of Natural History houses a geology collection and an interactive children’s area.

In addition to large, mounted animals, the Midwest Museum of Natural History houses a geology collection and an interactive children’s area.

Satisfy Your Spring Fever in Sycamore

By Jermaine Pigee, deputy editor

Sycamore, Ill., may be a smaller community in central DeKalb County, but it has plenty of activities and events to get you out of the winter blues and into spring fever.

Get out and enjoy a picnic, a bike ride, a hike or even paddle down the Kishwaukee River at the brand-new Sycamore Forest Preserve, a 60-acre conservation area scheduled to open in May.

Floodplain prairie habitat was planted in the back 30 acres while the front 30 acres feature two open-air shelters, new asphalt road parking and bike trails, picnic areas, hiking/cross-country ski trails and a fishing pond. The Great Western bike trail has been extended another half-mile west into this preserve, and bikers can find a new trailhead area to begin their journey.

It’s a good thing the displays aren’t alive at the Midwest Museum of Natural History. This collection of large mounted beasts tells the story of the wild world through a series of animals posed in dramatic dioramas.

“Dioramas feature more than 100 mounted animals, including one of the few and one of the largest elephants on display in the country,” says RoseMarie Treml, executive director of the Sycamore Chamber of Commerce.

The museum is also home to a wide range of live reptiles, amphibians, fish and arthropods.

Soak up the springtime and some beautiful living greenery at Blumen Gardens. What started as a horticultural endeavor in Joan and Joel Barczak’s backyard has grown into an award-winning landscape design business and garden center featuring a large selection of flowers at a charming former industrial property.

Visitors to Blumen Gardens can explore 4,500 square feet of indoor and outdoor shopping around this unique and very colorful gift and garden shop, which also has an event rental space. The avid gardener is sure to enjoy the blooming plants, succulents, houseplants, air plants and seed packets found around the shop.

Spring is a great time for being pampered in preparation for the summertime, and Sycamore has a variety of salons and spas to choose from. Dolce Vita is a full-service salon and day spa serving the whole family; Luxe Salon and Spa is dedicated to providing a memorable experience for each guest.

Throughout your adventure, you’ll no doubt want to explore Sycamore’s several unique restaurants. You can try Italian fare at Ristorante di Acquaviva or enjoy outdoor dining at Taxco Mexican Cuisine. You can also experience fine dining and trendy comfort foods at Nat’s on Maple. If casual is more your style, Pub 64 or PJ’s Courthouse Tavern & Grille are places where good food and friends come together.

After dinner, take a break from that healthy diet and visit The Confectionary, an old-fashioned candy store satisfying sweet teeth since 1982. Besides creams, clusters, toffees and caramels, the crew also makes hard-to-find sweets such as divinities, chocolate-dipped ginger and sugar-free chocolate clusters.

If you’ve never been to Sycamore, Treml invites you to see what this small-town setting has to offer.

“Explore Sycamore,” she says. “Take a look and visit us this spring. You won’t be disappointed.”

For more information, visit discoversycamore.com.

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