Time for a road trip! Here are some great getaway spots located just far enough away.
Family-Friendly Fall and Winter Activities
By Charlyne Blatcher Martin
Fall and winter sometimes present significant weather challenges that affect our social calendars.
However, the Aurora area, which branches out into parts of Kane, Kendall, Will and DuPage counties, accepts this challenge and welcomes everyone by offering a full calendar of activities both indoors and outdoors.
“There’s something for all age groups in the Aurora area this holiday season, but we’re really focused on family travel this time of year,” says James Cardis, director of marketing at the Aurora Area Convention & Visitors Bureau.
Aurora has many events for families, which include:
• First Fridays Downtown Aurora: Nov. 1 celebrates the Day of The Dead (Día de los Muertos) and Dec. 6 celebrates the winter season with a Cocoa Crawl where participating venues fill your custom mug while you enjoy art exhibits, pop-up holiday shops and live entertainment.
• Winter Lights Aurora: Nov. 22 from 6-9 p.m. on South Stolp Ave. and Downer Place. Enjoy pop-up holiday shops, a parade, costumed characters, Santa and Mrs. Claus, a tree lighting and fireworks.
For those who enjoy being outdoors during the fall and winter, the Aurora area does not disappoint. Red Oak Nature Center, 2343 S. River St., North Aurora, is situated on the east bank of the Fox River and offers 40 acres of forest to explore. There are hiking and biking trails, environmental exhibits and more.
“Abbey Farms and Blackberry Farm in Aurora both host fall and winter events where families can create lasting memories together,” Cardis adds. “Christmas at Abbey Farms is a destination for its market, kids’ activities, and U-Cut or U-Pick Christmas Tree farm, while Blackberry Farm hosts popular activities such as the Holiday Express train rides.”
To escape the chilly weather, take in a top-rated Broadway musical at the Paramount Theatre, 23 E. Galena Blvd., Aurora. Disney’s “Beauty and the Beast,” opening Nov. 13, has been extended and will now play through Jan. 19, 2020.
“Our top fall and winter attraction is the Paramount Theatre,” Cardis says. “Their award-winning Broadway Series is one of the best nationwide, with the second-highest subscriber base of any theater in America.”
If you’re coming to see a show at Paramount Theatre, consider extending your stay with holiday shopping in the Aurora area. For adults traveling with friends or on a couples’ getaway, there are numerous places to enjoy dining, drinking and shopping. Also, the Metra rail service to downtown Chicago expands options. Aurora’s stop offers free parking.
“We cover a lot of ground in our service area, so we have more than a few ‘hidden gem’ shopping destinations,” Cardis says.
Learn more about fun things to do in Aurora at enjoyaurora.com.
Where Something Special Happens in Autumn
By Pat Szpekowski
There’s something special about the anticipation of fall. The notion of picking fresh apples from a tree, choosing the best and biggest pumpkins, and breathing in the fresh country air appeals to just about everyone. There’s still some time left in this short-lived season.
“DeKalb County is the perfect place to plan a fall family getaway,” says Bonnie Heimbach, interim director of the DeKalb County Convention & Visitors Bureau. “We’re home to many family-owned farms and orchards that focus on bringing the best to you during this beautiful time of the year.”
The fun unfolds as you take a self-guided tour of these special farms while meandering the country roads around Malta, Maple Park, Waterman and DeKalb. Each destination provides its own special touch to heighten the fall spirits.
Jonamac Orchard, in Malta, features more than 10,000 apple trees representing more than two dozen tasty varieties. Enjoy “everything apple” inside the store and bakery. While you’re there, be sure to visit the campfire spots, a petting zoo, a hay pile, an apple train and a 10-acre corn maze that becomes “haunted” at night. The Cider House, filled with hundreds of unique items, shows off the process of brewing delicious apple cider.
Be sure to try apple picking at the 230-acre Kuipers Family Farm, in Maple Park, with its 5-acre, 2-mile corn maze. Enjoy hayrides, farm animals, a haunted forest, tractor tire mountain, and much more. The Orchard Shop and Bakery provide fresh apple cider donuts and many home-baked pies and treats. In November, the farm switches gears for the winter holidays.
Theis Farm Market, also in Maple Park, has pumpkins, gourds, squash, corn stalks, Indian corn and straw, plus fresh eggs, homegrown popcorn, and honey from bees on the farm. It’s a place filled with simple pleasures.
Fall memories await at the Honey Hill Orchard in Waterman. Explore the 1880s converted Apple Barn with its craft/gift loft. Choose from more than 25 varieties of fresh-picked apples. Savor the fresh-baked pies and caramel apples, apple cider donuts, and crisp apple cider.
Still yearning for more of the essence of fall? Visit the Harvest Playland at Yaeger’s Farm Market in DeKalb. Take some time and enjoy a hayride through the corn field as you head to the hidden pumpkin patch.
Yaeger’s also boasts a 5-acre corn maze, straw pyramid, wooden castle, ship and train. That’s just the beginning of so many more things to do.
Hungry? There are apples, caramel apples, caramel apple cookies, plus so many more butters, jellies, jams, pie fillings and fancy fall foods to take home and enjoy.
Fun times beckon throughout DeKalb County, especially as fall gives way to winter. “Holiday events are a great destination to enjoy here, too,” adds Heimbach, “including the Holiday Lights with Pete’s Train.”
Kids will enjoy the 300,000 lights and figures that make up Pete’s Train at Waterman Lion Community Park in Waterman. Glide on the free train ride through the park and enjoy a cup of hot chocolate, too. Santa comes down from the North Pole to visit kids every Friday through Sunday during the season.
There’s so much to do in DeKalb County this time of year that you’re sure be asking, “Are we there yet?”
Visit dekalbcvb.org to learn more.
Celebrating the Holiday Season in Elgin
By Sara Myers
There’s always an abundance of fun to be had in the Elgin area, even in chilly weather.
“We cover Elgin, South Elgin, Bartlett, Carpentersville, East Dundee, West Dundee, Gilberts, Sleepy Hollow and Hampshire. So, our main goal is to try to promote the things to see and do in all of those communities,” explains Breanne Moreno, marketing manager for the Elgin Area Convention and Visitors Bureau. And there’s plenty to see in those communities.
Here are some of Moreno’s recommendations for family-friendly activities this holiday season.
Feed the Bison
The Elgin Public Museum hosts a special event that gives visitors an up-close view of the bison, deer and elk at Lords Park Zoo. The event takes place on Saturday, Nov. 30 and Saturday, Dec. 28 from 7 a.m. to 8:30 a.m. Space is limited to 12 people, so the museum encourages eager participants to register early. For more information and to register, head to eliginpublicmuseum.org.
Elgin Winter Wonderland
The Downtown Neighborhood Association of Elgin hosts the Elgin Winter Wonderland 2019 event on Saturday, Dec. 7 from 2 p.m. to 6 p.m. The free event kicks off Elgin’s official tree lighting ceremony and features live holiday music, activities for kids, sleigh rides, food trucks, pictures with Santa Claus and more. For more information on the event, visit elginwinterwonderland.com.
If you’re looking for a holiday performance, look no further than the Chicago Ballet Conservatory production of “The Nutcracker,” presented by Elgin Symphony Orchestra. The production takes place Dec. 7 and 8 at Hemmens Cultural Center. There’s also the option of attending the “Sugar Plum Tea” party Saturday, Dec. 7 to meet the production’s cast and take pictures with characters. To find tickets, head to elginsymphony.org.
Polar Express Train
If you’re a fan of Chris Van Allsburg’s book “The Polar Express,” check out the Fox River Trolley Museum’s Polar Express Train. It’ll take you to the “North Pole” where Santa lives. Upon arrival, Santa will board the train, greet every child and give them a small gift. More information can be found at foxtrolley.org/polarexpress.
Spirit of Christmas Parade
In West Dundee on Main Street, a classic Christmas parade takes place Dec. 7 at 10 a.m. Multiple organizations and nonprofits participate, leading up to an appearance by Santa. Want to walk in the parade? Give Village Hall a call at (847) 551-3800. For a full list of special holiday events in West Dundee, head to dickensindundee.org.
For more information about holiday events, visit exploreelginarea.com and follow @exploreelgin.
Inside Ottawa’s Lineup of Autumn Activities
By Joanne Newton
Nestled at the confluence of the Illinois and Fox Rivers, Ottawa, Ill., has a natural beauty heightened by trees ablaze with fall color through October and November.
The Kaskaskia tribe lived in the area when explorers Marquette and Jolliet traveled through the region in 1673, and Ottawa still beckons adventurers. The vibrant city of 18,500 is rich in history and natural beauty. More than just a gateway to Starved Rock State Park, Ottawa is vacation-worthy itself.
Sunny and crisp fall days call for being outdoors. Arrange for customized sightseeing through Awesome Ottawa Tours or explore the city on your own. Take a self-guided walking tour of the historic downtown. Bike or hike on the former Illinois and Michigan Canal towpath. Rent kayaks to explore the rivers and paddle into Starved Rock. For the ultimate high in adventure, sign up for a tandem jump at Skydive Chicago, one of the largest skydiving centers in the world.
Fall color adds beauty to the many downtown attractions. Visit Washington Square Park, where the first Lincoln-Douglas Debate was held in August 1858. Larger-than-life bronze statues of Lincoln and Douglas overlook fountains and reflecting pools. Lincoln was largely unknown then.
“We like to say this is where he first found his voice,” says Curt Bedei, executive director of the Ottawa Visitors Center.
A “Radium Girls” statue honors the tragic stories of the young women who painted watch dials at an Ottawa factory in the 1920s. The glow-in-the-dark paint was laced with radium, causing radium poisoning among the workers.
A short walk away is the Illinois & Michigan Canal’s last standing Toll House, built in 1849. A nearby section of the canal is dry now but will be “rewatered” before spring.
To learn more about the I & M Canal, stop at the Illinois Waterway Visitors Center on the Illinois River between Utica and Ottawa. Operated by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, it’s a great place to watch barges and towboats go through the lock and dam, and it’s a top place to find spectacular views of the whole Starved Rock area.
To see more stunning fall vistas, check out Buffalo State Park, which used to be an island in the Illinois River and is now a bluff overlooking it. Features include two buffalo and five Indian effigy mounds. Allen Park, on the Illinois River, and Fox River Park, on the Fox River, are scenic city parks with river walks and boat docks plus many other amenities.
Be sure to also mark your calendars for the following events:
• Haunted Ottawa Tours, happening in October on Wednesdays and Thursdays at 6 p.m.
• Ottawa’s Old Town Farmers Market, at Washington Square Park, on Saturday mornings in October.
• Wine and Art Walk, happening downtown on Nov. 2.
• Festival of Lights Parade, at Washington Square Park on Nov. 29.
• Chris Kringle Market, happening downtown during weekends in December.
Places to Stay: A unique option is Heritage Harbor, 11 Harbor View Dr., which allows you to rent a cottage at an Illinois River marina.
Places to eat/drink: Try one of the downtown taverns and restaurants, such as Tangled Roots Brewing Company, 812 La Salle St., with its copper barrels and beer tasting events.
For more information, visit pickottawail.com.
Embracing the Outdoors as Seasons Change
By Charlyne Blatcher Martin
Fall is here, and as it gives way to winter, even the hardiest Midwesterners are challenged by the weather. On the southwestern border of Rockford, Severson Dells Nature Center approaches the challenge of the seasons head-on with activities and programs for people of all ages.
“For me, it’s about encouraging people to get out and enjoy nature during a season when many feel like it’s time to curl up indoors,” says Ann Wasser, director at Severson Dells Nature Center.
Many activities offered at Severson Dells support her goal.
For example, the relatively new Homeschool Programs are designed to help support local homeschooled children in their science learning.
“Families are choosing home schooling for a variety of reasons. We provide support through the school year, from September to May, by providing hands-on science experiences for those students,” Wasser says.
Nature Sprouts, a program designed for children ages 3-6 years old who are accompanied by a guardian, features Spectacular Squirrels on Nov. 12. It’s an event that includes a “Squirrel Hike” after reading “The Busy Little Squirrel.” Participants learn to observe and to practice counting skills on a hike, and make a squirrel puppet to take home. Registration and a fee are required.
Naturalist Night: Treasures Beneath Our Feet, on Nov. 13, invites adults ages 16 and up to explore the unique soil and geology of Winnebago County.
“This topic is new for a Severson Dells program,” Wasser says. “There is a diversity of soils and geology on Severson’s 369 acres. The facilitator will cover how the soils affect and support the plants and animals at the Dells.” Registration is required by Nov. 19. Free-will donations are appreciated.
Turkey Twist Yoga, on Nov. 29 from 9-10 a.m., is likely to give willing participants some relief from Black Friday’s shopping frenzy.
“When we were approached to do this, I thought this sounds too good to pass up,” Wasser says. “You are invited to do yoga twists and have tea with local and certified yoga teacher Amanda Stivers. All levels of yoga practice are welcome to attend.” Cost is $12 for members and $15 for non-members.
Opt Outside Hike with Severson Dells and Rocktown Adventures on Nov. 29 offers an alternative to shopping with a leisurely hike in the woods. “This time of year, people want to snuggle up inside, but, there is a lot to enjoy outdoors with all of the changes in the fall and winter,” Wasser says.
“Between October and December, we have about 5,000 visitors,” Wasser adds. “Severson Dells Nature Center is a destination that offers fun-filled educational indoor and outdoor adventures for people of all ages.”
For more information on programs at Severson Dells, visit seversondells.com. For more information on exploring the outdoors of Winnebago County throughout the year, check out 815outside.com.
You’re Invited to One Lodge Lane
By Kathy Casstevens, marketing director, Starved Rock Lodge
A winter getaway to Starved Rock Lodge is beautiful indoors and out. Located at One Lodge Lane, in Oglesby, Ill., Starved Rock Lodge is near canyons, bluffs and seasonal icefalls that create amazing backdrops for photos.
Just before Thanksgiving, the historic Lodge is decorated for the holidays. This year’s theme is “Americana.” Once there’s a chill in the air, the Great Hall’s massive two-sided fireplace crackles with glowing logs that warm the space and welcome guests from near and far.
Holiday buffets on Christmas Eve and Christmas Day make family get-togethers easy and fun. Reservations with pre-payment are required.
The rustic Main Dining Room is open daily for breakfast, lunch and dinner. Sunday brunch is a guest favorite. Local musicians liven up the Back Door Lounge every Friday night from 8-11:00 p.m.
Historic Trolley Tours run every Saturday and Sunday through December at noon and 1:30 p.m. Guided hikes are offered each Sunday at 11:00 a.m. (drawstring backpack with lunch included).
Tickets are still available for the Best of Broadway Christmas Tribute on Dec. 2-4 and the Patsy Cline Christmas Show on Dec. 16-17. Tickets are $35 per person.
It’s not too early to get tickets to the Lodge’s annual New Year’s Eve party in the Great Hall on Dec. 31. The Overnight Party Package ($495) includes overnight accommodations for two guests, an open bar, party favors, photos by the fireplace for an additional cost, hors d’oeuvres, a buffet dinner, live entertainment in the Great Hall, a champagne toast at midnight, late check-out, New Year’s Day Brunch, plus a chance to win a $1,000 travel voucher. The Party Only Package is $275 for two and does not include overnight stay, brunch or the contest.
If a wedding is in your future, attend the Lodge’s annual Wedding Expo on Sunday, Jan. 5, from noon to 3 p.m. Starved Rock Lodge was the destination for more than 140 outdoor weddings last year with the beautiful backdrop of Starved Rock State Park for stunning photos.
In 2020, Sled Dog Demos hosted by Free Spirit Siberian Rescue return to the Lodge on Jan. 13 and Feb. 17. See real sled dogs run just west of the Visitor Center, and attend free seminars in the Lodge. Dogs will also be available for adoption.
Eagle Watch Weekend, set for Jan. 26-27, promises exciting “Birds of Prey” shows and hands-on exhibits in the Great Hall. Educational seminars will take place at the Lodge and at the Illinois Waterway Visitor Center. Eagle Trolley Tours offered during January and February include lunch and a guided tour aboard a Starved Rock Trolley to see migrating bald eagles. Guided Winter Hikes depart from the Lodge each Saturday and Sunday at 11 a.m.
In the quiet of winter, cozy cabins set peacefully in the woods provide a getaway that can be restful and rejuvenating. And, best of all, an indoor pool complex is just a few steps away with a pool, hot tub and two saunas. Massage therapists are available by appointment. Some guests enjoy just reading a book or playing cards in the Great Hall.
See more about all of Starved Rock’s winter events at starvedrocklodge.com.